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Proc Biol Sci. 2007 Aug 22;274(1621):1985-92.

Springs and wire plants: anachronistic defences against Madagascar's extinct elephant birds.

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Botany Department, University of Cape Town, Private Bag, Rondebosch 7701, Republic of South Africa.


The extinction of large vertebrates in the last few millennia has left a legacy of evolutionary anachronisms. Among these are plant structural defences that persist long after the extinction of the browsers. A peculiar, and controversial, example is a suite of traits common in divaricate (wide-angled branching) plants from New Zealand. Divaricate architecture has been interpreted as an adaptive response to cold climates or an anachronistic defence against the extinct moas. Madagascar, a larger tropical island, also had a fauna of large flightless birds, the elephant birds. If these extinct ratites selected for similar plant defences, we expected to find convergent features between New Zealand and Malagasy plants, despite their very different climates. We searched the southern thickets of Madagascar for plants with putative anti-ratite defences and scored candidate species for a number of traits common to many New Zealand divaricates. We found many Malagasy species in 25 families and 36 genera shared the same suite of traits, the 'wire plant' syndrome, as divaricates in New Zealand that resist ratite browsing. Neither ecologically, nor phylogenetically, matched species from South Africa shared these traits. Malagasy wire plants differ from many New Zealand divaricates in lacking the distinctive concentration of leaves in the interior of shrubs. We suggest that New Zealand divaricates have a unique amalgam of traits that acted as defences and also confer tolerance to cold. We conclude that many woody species in the thickets of southern Madagascar share, with New Zealand, anachronistic structural defences against large extinct bird browsers.

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