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Rapid biological speciation driven by tectonic evolution in New Zealand

Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 140144 (2016) | Download Citation


Collisions between tectonic plates lead to the rise of new mountain ranges that can separate biological populations and ultimately result in new species1. However, the identification of links between tectonic mountain-building and biological speciation is confounded by environmental and ecological factors2,3,4. Thus, there are surprisingly few well-documented examples of direct tectonic controls on terrestrial biological speciation. Here we present examples from New Zealand, where the rapid evolution of 18 species of freshwater fishes has resulted from parallel tectonic landscape evolution. We use numerical models to reconstruct changes in the deep crustal structure and surface drainage catchments of the southern island of New Zealand over the past 25 million years. We show that the island and mountain topography evolved in six principal tectonic zones, which have distinct drainage catchments that separated fish populations. We use new and existing5,6 phylogenetic analyses of freshwater fish populations, based on over 1,000 specimens from more than 400 localities, to show that fish genomes can retain evidence of this tectonic landscape development, with a clear correlation between geologic age and extent of DNA sequence divergence. We conclude that landscape evolution has controlled on-going biological diversification over the past 25 million years.

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This research was supported financially by the Marsden Fund (Royal Society of New Zealand) and University of Otago. Digital topographic images were derived from www.geographx.co.nz.

Author information


  1. Geology Department, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand

    • Dave Craw
  2. GNS Science, PO Box 30368, Lower Hutt 5040, New Zealand

    • Phaedra Upton
  3. School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, Hobart 7001, Tasmania, Australia

    • Christopher P. Burridge
  4. Zoology Department, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand

    • Graham P. Wallis
    •  & Jonathan M. Waters


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D.C. and J.M.W. conceived the project and prepared the original manuscript. J.M.W., G.P.W. and C.P.B. gathered and compiled the fish phylogenetic and phylogeographic data. P.U. conducted the numerical modelling. All authors refined the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dave Craw.

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