Review of Ghosts of Gondwana – The History of Life in New Zealand – George Gibbs

Posted: April 3, 2017 in nonfiction, Review
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Have you ever wondered why New Zealand’s plants and animals are so different from those in other countries? Why kakapo is the only parrot in the world that cannot fly, or why the kiwi lives here and nowhere else? New Zealand is an extraordinary place, unique on earth, and the remarkable story of how and why life evolved here is the subject of Ghosts of Gondwana.

The challenge of explaining New Zealand’s natural origins is picked up in this fully revised edition of the popular award-winning book. It presents the latest scientific research in highly readable form, highlighting studies that reveal the deep historical background of our landscapes, fauna and flora – from ancient frogs and moa to delicate insects and the magnificent southern beech forests. It introduces the latest discoveries and resolves past issues like the ‘Oligocene drowning’ hypothesis. Exciting fossil discoveries are revealed and new scientific technologies and approaches to the discipline of historical biogeography are discussed – approaches that range from undersea geology to molecular clocks – and it inevitably draws attention to the debates and conflicts that distinguish different schools of opinion in this holistic branch of theoretical science.

This revision incorporates the results of 10 years of intensive scientific research and includes four entirely new chapters to: focus on ‘yesterday’s maps’ to draw attention to the ephemeral islands in our history that have possibly acted as stepping stones for terrestrial animals and plants but today have sunk into the sea; incorporate the author’s own special interest in an ancient group of ‘jaw-moths’, unknown and unnoticed by most people but with a strong message that New Zealand is part of the world when it comes to explaining where our fauna have come from; present recent research findings on our huge flightless birds, the ratites; and include New Zealand’s terrestrial molluscs into the story.

Ghosts of Gondwana identifies New Zealand as one of the most challenging places on earth to explain, but it’s readable, engaging style and revised illustrations render this often-controversial discipline of science into a format that is accessible to any reader with an interest in natural history and the unique environment of New Zealand.

Potton & Burton

Supplied by Potton & Burton

Reviewed by Steve

Ever wondered where the native flora and fauna of New Zealand came from? Were they here from time out of mind, or did they migrate from somewhere else? And where was that somewhere? George Gibbs, a former lecturer in Biology at Victoria University, tries to answer these questions. He also explains why it is so difficult to provide decent answers: a rather poor fossil record. However, there have been some new and exciting developments in Central Otago that Gibbs dips into.

Gibbs has divided the book into four sections: unique Aotearoa, seeking explanations, explanations for New Zealand life, and made in New Zealand. The section titles are obvious: New Zealand has a decidedly unique bioscape, from a scientific point of view this needs to be explained, some theories work better than others for different plants or animals, and there are the biota that that define New Zealand and nowhere else.

Thus Gibbs takes us on a journey through plate tectonics, the disintegration of Gondwana, the slow drowning of the mini-continent of Zealandia and the ridge islands that extended as far as New Caledonia, as well as the competing theories as to what happened here geographically speaking. Throughout the telling, it becomes obvious that New Zealand shares a considerable amount of its biological ancestry with Australia, southern South America, and the currently under-inhabited Antarctica.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Gibbs’s style is easy for the curious layman to follow, and key concepts are explained both verbally and with the aid of diagrams. By the end of it not only did I feel an almost instant expert, but was filled with a desire to contribute to the discussion. Buy it.

 

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