Canterbury-Otago Tussock Grasslands

Image credit: Wikipedia, M. Kaiser (CC by 3.0)

Canterbury-Otago Tussock Grasslands

The ecoregion’s land area is provided in units of 1,000 hectares. The protection goal is the Global Safety Net (GSN1) area for the given ecoregion. The protection level indicates the percentage of the GSN goal that is currently protected on a scale of 0-10. N/A means data is not available at this time.

Bioregion: New Zealand (AU1)

Realm: Australasia

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States: New Zealand

This ecoregion lies in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps. Prior to clearing and fires brought by man, coastal broadleaf forests, kahikatea swamp forest (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides), and low conifer-dominated forests covered the land but over time transitioned to today’s tussock grasslands. Some of the driest inland areas near Otago are thought to have been treeless originally. Large flightless ratites (moa) were hunted to extinction long ago, but their heavy browsing on leaves is hypothesized to have driven a range of native plant defenses, including leaves inside of thickets of spiny branches and plants and leaves mimicking unhealthy plants. Though controversial, roughly 20 percent of the native flora is thought to display traits linked to defenses against ratite browsing.

McCanns skink. Image credit: iNaturalist, bugman-nz (CC by 2.0)

The flagship species of the Canterbury-Otago Tussock Grasslands ecoregion is the McCann’s skink. Image credit: iNaturalist, bugman-nz (CC by 2.0)

Drier inland areas had low conifer-broadleaf forests with mountain toatoa (Phyllocladus alpinus), Hall's totara (Podocarpus hallii), broadleaf (Griselinia littoralis), and kanuka (Kunzea ericoides). Foothills were covered in beech forest (Nothofagus spp.). Lower plains had mixed beech-podocarp forests dominated by matai (Prumnoptitys taxifolia) and totara (Podocarpus totara). The short, drought-resistant tussock communities that replaced the lower forests are mainly hard tussock (Festuca novae-zelandiae), silver tussock (Poa cita), and Carex inopinata where not replaced by introduced pasture plants. At higher elevations one finds cushion plants, such as Chionohebe myosotioide, tall tussocks (Chionochloa spp.), and large herbs like the speargrass (Aciphylla subflabellata). The majority of low- and mid-altitude grasslands are now highly modified as a result of fires, weed invasion, overgrazing, irrigation, and rabbit plagues. Original beech forest remnants still occur in northern and southwestern parts of the ecoregion. Some extant, but threatened native plants include the shrub Hebe cupressoides, Hector’s tree daisy (Olearia hectori), and the Peraxilla mistletoes. Along braided rivers, one finds cushion plants (Raoulia spp.), willowherbs (Epilobium spp.), Muehlenbeckia axillaries and encrusting lichens. 

The braided river systems are the habitats of at least 26 waterbird species, such as black stilt (Himantopus novazelandiae). McCann's skink (Oligosoma maccanni) also lives in these braided rivers. Otago skink (Oligosoma otagense) and the grand skink (Oligosoma grande) are endemic to this ecoregion, but land modification has led to an approximate 90 percent decrease in their range. The unique Canterbury mudfish, an endemic, survives in mud in dry seasons. The region also has 120 endemic moth species. 

Weeds and livestock browsing threaten plant communities. Intensive grazing, introduced weeds and pasture plants, and repeated fires are persistent threats to native species and habitats. Rock and Pillar, Lammermoor, Old Man, Old Woman, Pisa, and Remarkable Ranges constitute several protected areas totaling about 50 square kilometers.

Priority conservation actions for the next decade

  1. Protect and enhance wetlands and rivers, including weed control on braided rivers to provide favorable habitat for stilts and wrybill.
  2. Protect remnant native tussock grassland and beech forest from grazing, introduced browsers, and wildife.
  3. Protect and effectively manage inland salt pans in Central Otago and their unusual native plant species. 
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