Tongan tropical moist forests

Content Cover Image

Tonga Island. (Photograph by David Olson)

Niue and the Kingdom of Tonga are islands of volcanic and raised coral origin, and they support a diversity of plant communities and unique vertebrates – though fewer than it once did. The island of 'Eua is believed to be a fragment of the ancient Gondwanaland supercontinent and may harbor ancient taxa. Anthropogenic pressure has resulted in extensive modification of all ecosystems on the limestone islands of this group. Only uninhabited and steep volcanic islands, such as the islands of Late and Tofua, still support large areas of forest.

Location and General Description

Situated between Fiji to the west and Samoa to the northeast, the Kingdom of Tonga comprises a scattered distribution of 170 islands running north to south between 15º to 23º S latitude and 173º to 177º W longitude.

Niue is 400 kilometers (km) east at 19º S latitude and 169º W longitude.

caption Source: WWF

The Tongan Islands lie over the tectonic zone where the Pacific Plate is being subducted under the Asia-Australia Plate. The uplifting of the Asia-Australia Plate in this area is responsible for the raised coral reef and limestone which form the basis for the island groups of Tongatapu, Ha’apai, and Vava’u. Niue is a 259-km2 uplifted coral atoll with cliffs on all sides and no fringing coral reef. Islands along a fracture zone from southwest to northeast, including Niuafo’ou, Tafahi, Niuatoputapu, Late, Kao, Tofua, Hunga Ha’apai, Hunga Tonga, and ‘Eua, were created by active volcanoes that continue to erupt on an average of every 4 years. 'Eua, however, also is believed to be partly comprised of an ancient fragment of Gondwanaland that has moved close to Tonga after being much nearer to Fiji and New Caledonia millions of years ago. The youngest volcanic island is probably 1-million-year-old Niuafo’ou Island in the far north. The climate is tropical with mean daily temperatures ranging from 24 to 30 °C in February and from 20 to 26 °C in August. The islands receive an average annual rainfall of more than 2,000 millimeters (mm) although rainfall increases with elevation up to the 1,000+ meter summits of the higher mountains. December to April have greater rainfalls, and infrequent cyclones can bring torrential rains and forest-destroying winds during this time. Coastal leeward areas often experience droughts from May through November.

Tropical moist forest is usually subdivided between lowland broadleaf rain forest below 500 meters (m) and a subtropical rain forest above 500 m. Lowland broadleaf rain forest, with a canopy to 30 m is dominated by Diospyros spp., Rhus taitensis, Alphitonia zizyphoides, Calophyllum neo-ebudicum, Elattostachys falcata, Litsea mellifera, Pisonia grandis, Pittosporum arborescens, Garuga floribunda, Ficus obliqua, Pleiogynium timoriense, Cryptocarya turbinata, and Maniltoa grandiflora. Dense areas of staghorn fern (Dicranopteris linearis) often occur in the understory with the shrubs Macropiper puberulum and Psychotria insularum. Mangrove (Rhizophora spp.) forest still exists on many small atoll islands and along lagoon shores of the larger islands. Casuarina equisetifolia dominates communities on newer ash deposits and lava flows, behind beaches, and generally on thin soils, often with Pandanus tectorius, Syzygium dealatum, Hibiscus tiliaceus, and Scaevola taccada.

Biodiversity Features

Tonga supports 419 angiosperm plants and fern species with approximately 3 percent endemism, including some spectacular Hibiscus spp. Plant diversity on individual islands ranges from 340 species on Tongatapu and 300 species on ‘Eua, to 145 species on Late, and 107 on Vava’u.

The herpetofauna of Tonga, consisting of 20 known species, is considered depauperate. There is one iguanid, nine geckos, nine skinks, and the Pacific boa (Candoia bibroni). The iguanid, the South Pacific banded iguana (Brachylophus fasciatus), is also found in Fiji and is believed to have rafted from the Americas. The species is endangered. The skink Tachygia microlepsis is considered extinct.

Tonga, Niue, and Niuafo’ou are considered secondary Endemic Bird Areas because of two island group endemics and a suite of species restricted to central Polynesia. Tonga currently supports 20 species of land and freshwater birds with one island group endemic, the Tongan whistler (Pachycephala jacquinoti) in the Vava’u Group. More than 100,000 sooty terns (Sterna juscata) are thought to breed in the volcanic crater on Fonualei Island in the Vava’u Group. Niue has 6 seabird and 12 land bird species, including two endemic subspecies. Large seabird colonies are present on uninhabited and rat-free islands, including particularly large numbers of brown noddy (Anous stolidus). The Niuafo’ou megapode (Megapodius pritchardii) is restricted to the island of Niuafo’ou where it buries its eggs in the warm sands near volcanic ducts. All other species of megapode in Polynesia have been extirpated, and the nearest extant species is in Vanuatu, 1,600 km west. The Phoenix petrel (Pterodroma alba) and bristle-thighed curlew (Numenius tahitiensis), also found in the ecoregion, are considered vulnerable.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Tonga and Niue supported a much more spectacular vertebrate fauna before Polynesians arrived approximately 3,000 years ago. At least 3 land bird species disappeared from Niue and 23 disappeared from Tonga after Polynesians arrived, including 2 parrot species, 4 pigeons and 2 megapodes. A giant land iguana and several other reptiles and bats have also been found.

Current Status

Only 45 of Tonga’s 170 islands are currently inhabited, but the population of nearly 100,000 is growing rapidly. The population increase has resulted in more forest clearing on settled islands as well as the establishment of crop plantations on many uninhabited islands. The volcanic islands of Late (17 km2) and Tofua (55.4 km2) have some of the best remaining high diversity native forest and still support large populations of birds and reptiles.

Types and Severity of Threats

Habitat destruction, poaching for food and feathers, and introduced species are the principal threats to remaining Tongan and Niue biodiversity. Introduced black rats (Rattus rattus) and Norway rats (R. norwegicus) can have catastrophic impacts on breeding seabirds and passerines. They are currently found on most inhabited islands, and preventing their spread to other islands is essential for the protection of bird populations and perhaps some plant populations. A number of native species have been extirpated from most inhabited islands by a combination of poaching and rat predation. Captive breeding of the Niuafo’ou megapode, red shining parrot (Prosopeia tabuensis), and blue-crowned lorikeet (Vini australis) has begun as have efforts to establish populations of these species on uninhabited islands.

There are no national parks in Tonga or Niue. Perhaps the greatest potential for conservation lies in the protection of uninhabited, forested, and predator-free islands that are stocked with threatened flora and fauna from inhabited islands. Paleoecology studies suggest many of the target species once occurred on these refuge islands and this approach may offer the best chance for conservation of many threatened species.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation

This ecoregion includes Tongatapu, the Vava’u, and Ha’apai Groups, as well as Niue. While van Balgooy et al considers Tonga and Samoa as one unit with respect to floristic affinities, Allison treats the Tongan and Samoan archipelagos as separate units with respect to herpetofauna. Tonga, Niue, and Niuafo’ou are delineated as an Endemic Bird Secondary Areas due to the presence of two endemic and a number of restricted-range bird species in those areas. These have been lumped to form the Tongan Tropical Moist Forest ecoregion.

Additional information on this ecoregion

Further Reading

  • Allison, A. 1996. Zoogeography of amphibians and reptiles of New Guinea and the Pacific region. Pages 407-436 in Keast, A. and S.E. Miller, editors. The origin and evolution of Pacific island biotas, New Guinea to Eastern Polynesia: Patterns and processes. SPB Academic Publishing, Amsterdam. ISBN: 905103136X
  • Bryan, W.B., G.D. Stice, and A. Ewart. 1972. Geology, petrography, and geochemistry of the volcanic islands of Tonga. Journal of Geophysical Research, 77:1566-1585.
  • Drake, D.R., Whistler, W.A., Motley, T.J. 1996. Rain forest vegetation of Eua Island, Kingdom of Tonga. New Zealand Journal of Botany, March 1996, 34(N1):65-77.
  • Gill, B J. Notes on the Birds Reptiles and Mammals of Tongatapu and Eua, Tonga Notornis, 34(3), 1987:217-223.
  • Hilton-Taylor, C. (compiler) 2000. 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. ISBN: 2831705657
  • Koopman, K.F., and D.W. Steadman, David W. 1995. Extinction and Biogeography of Bats on 'Eua, Kingdom of Tonga. American Museum Novitates 0 (3125):1-13.
  • Goth, A. and U. Vogel. 1995. Status of the Polynesian Megapode (Megapodius pritchardii) on Niuafo’ou (Tonga). Bird Conservation International, 5:117-128.
  • Jenkins, J.A.F. 1980. Seabird records from Tonga-an account based on the literature and recent observations. Notornis, 27:205-235.
  • Kinsky, F. C., and J. C. Yaldwyn. 1981. The bird fauna of Niue Island, southwest Pacific, with special notes on the white-tailed tropicbird and golden plover. National Museum of New Zealand Miscellaneous Series, 2:1-49.
  • Mueller-Dombois, D. and F.R. Fosberg. 1998. Vegetation of the Tropical Pacific Islands. Springer Press, New York. ISBN: 038798285X
  • Pregill, Gregory K. 1993. Fossil lizards from the Late Quaternary of 'Eua, Tonga. Pacific Science,47(2):101-114.
  • Rinke, D. 1986a. Notes on the avifauna of Niuafo’ou Island, Kingdom of Tonga. Emu, 86:145-151.
  • Rinke, D. 1986b. The status of wildlife in Tonga. Oryx, 20:146-151.
  • Rinke, D. 1987. The Avifauna of Eua and Its Off-Shore Islet Kalau Kingdom of Tonga Emu, 87(1):26-34
  • Stattersfield, A.J., M.J. Crosby, A.J. Long, and D.C. Wege. 1998. Endemic Bird Areas of the World: Priorities for biodiversity conservation. BirdLife Conservation Series no. 7, BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK. 846 pp. ISBN: 0946888337
  • Steadman, D.W. 1989. New species and records of birds (Aves: Megapodiidae, Columbidae) from an archaeological site on Lifuka, Tonga (South Pacific Ocean). Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 102:537-552.
  • Steadman, D.W. 1993. Biogeography of Tongan birds before and after human impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 90:818-822.
  • Steadman, D.W. 1998. Status of land birds on selected islands in the Ha’apai Group, Kingdom of Tonga. Pacific Science, 52:14-34.
  • Sykes, W.R. 1981. The vegetation of Late Island, Tonga. Allertonia, 2:323-353.
  • Whister, W.A. 1992. Vegetation of Samoa and Tonga. Pacific Science, 46:159-178.
  • Worthy, T.H., R. Walter, and A.J. Anderson. 1998. Fossil and archaeological avifauna of Niue Island, Pacific Ocean. Notornis, 45:177-190.


Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.








Fund, W. (2014). Tongan tropical moist forests. Retrieved from


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