$920k grant to plumb flora mystery

Conservation ecologist Dr Bill Lee and postdoctoral researcher Dr Angela Brandt, both of Landcare...
Conservation ecologist Dr Bill Lee and postdoctoral researcher Dr Angela Brandt, both of Landcare Research, Dunedin, look at several hebe species. Photo by Peter McIntosh.

Otago's native plants, including its many hebe species, may help solve a puzzle which botanists have been scratching their heads about for centuries.

Dr Bill Lee, a conservation ecologist at Landcare Research in Dunedin, has recently gained a $920,000 Marsden Fund grant to lead the research.

The three-year project aims to discover ''why some plant groups produce many species and others very few'', Dr Lee said. New Zealand in general and Otago in particular provided an ''ideal laboratory'' to examine this question.

''Much of the diversity of our flora derives from impressive radiations in groups such as Hebe, Coprosma, Celmisia, Olearia and Aciphylla, and these plants are especially significant in southern New Zealand because of the range of habitats and environments,'' he said.

Hebe, with more than 70 species, is New Zealand's largest native plant group, and more than a third of these species grow in the wild in Otago.

Hebe species range from dwarf shrubs to small trees and flourish in many different places, ranging from coastal to mountain ecosystems.

Dr Lee is also a professor at the Joint Graduate School in Biodiversity and Biosecurity at Auckland University.

He felt ''very privileged'' to have the chance to undertake the research.

He will study some of the country's ''spectacularly rich'' plant groups, and will work with colleagues at Landcare Research, as well as scientists at Lincoln University and abroad, including at Stanford University.

New molecular methods will be used to determine when such plant groups arrived.

The research would focus on the relative importance of being ''first to arrive'' in an island habitat or region, and what effect that had on overall plant group diversity, he said.

- john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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