Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

Ultrabasic sea cliffs

Surville Cliffs, North Cape (Peter de Lange)

Surville Cliffs, North Cape (Peter de Lange)

Coastal cliffs are very steep rock faces near the sea that are greater than 5 m in height. They may ascend in steps and have ledges, crevices and overhangs. Coastal cliffs may rise directly from the sea or be separated from it by a narrow shore. Ultrabasic (also known as ultramafic) rocks contain very little quartz or feldspar and are composed essentially of ferromagnesium silicates, metal oxides, and native metals (Anon 1962) that weather to soils with low concentrations of major nutrients and high concentrations of toxic metals such as nickel, chromium, and cobalt. Cliffs and outcrops provide many varied habitats: from bare rock that can only be colonised by mosses and lichens to deeper soils supporting woody vegetation; from highly exposed situations to heavily shaded and sheltered habitats; and from very dry to permanently wet surfaces. Coastal cliffs are influenced by salt spray, particularly near their bases, with halophytes often characteristic. Vegetation often consists of matted small-leaved shrubs such as wire-netting bush (Corokia cotoneaster), naturally uncommon Cassinia amoena, and Mingimingi (Leptecophylla juniperina). Native species that have been lost from neighbouring habitats may find refuge on cliffs and scarps.


Coastal cliffs of ultramafic rocks, coastal cliffs of serpentine rocks

Where do they occur?

Ultrabasic sea cliffs occur on the Surville Cliffs, North Cape, and further south at Taipare Bay, D’Urville Island.

Notable flora and fauna

Threatened plants include the nationally critical Surville Cliffs hook grass (Uncinia perplexa), the nationally endangered Surville Cliffs kohuhu (Pittosporum serpentinum), the nationally uncommon North Cape sedge (Carex ophiolithica),Coprosma distantia,Coprosma spathulata subsp. hikuruana,Geniostoma ligustrifolium var. crassum, Surville Cliffs haloragis (Haloragis erecta subsp. cartilaginea),Hebe brevifolia Surville Cliffs mingimingi (Leucopogon xerampelinus), North Cape native jasmine (Parsonsia praeruptis),Pittosporum pimeleoides subssp. majus,Pomaderris paniculosa subsp. novae-zelandiae, Pimelea aff. tomentosa (b) (AK 130893;Surville Cliffs), and Pseudopanax aff. lessonii (AK 46066; Surville Cliffs).

Threat status

Endangered (Holdaway et al. 2012)


The spread of pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), downy hakea (Hakea gibbosa), and prickly hakea (H. sericea) on Surville Cliffs is of concern. In shrubby ecosystems, fire poses a moderate threat.

Further reading

Anon 1962. Dictionary of geological terms. National Academy of Sciences for the American Geological Institute, New York, Doubleday.

Cameron EK, Jones S 1996. Vascular flora of North Cape (including Kerr Point, Murimotu Id, Surville Cliffs, Waikuku Flat. Auckland Botanical Society Journal 51: 78-96.

Dawson JW 1988. Serpentine Vegetation in Forest Vines to Snow Tussocks: The Story of New Zealand Plants. Victoria University Press, Wellington.

De Lange PJ 1997. Hebe brevifolia (Scrophulariaceae) - an ultramafic endemic of the Surville Cliffs, North Cape, New Zealand. New Zealand of Botany 35: 1-8.

De Lange PJ 1997. Pittosporum ellipticum subsp. serpentinum (Pittosporaceae) — a new ultramafic endemic from the Surville Cliffs, North Cape, New Zealand. New Zealand of Botany 36: 389-397.

De Lange PJ, Heenan PB 1997. Carex ophiolithica (Cyperaceae): a new ultramafic endemic from the Surville Cliffs, North Cape, New Zealand. New Zealand of Botany 35: 429-436.

De Lange PJ, Heenan PB 2001. A new Coprosma (Rubiaceae) from the Surville Cliffs, North Cape, New Zealand. New Zealand of Botany, 39: 217-223.

Druce AP, Bartlett JK, Gardner RO 1979. Indigenous vascular plants of the Serpentine area of Surville Cliffs and adjacent cliff tops, north west of North Cape, New Zealand. Tane 25: 187-206.

Kennedy DM, Dickson ME 2007. Cliffed coasts of New Zealand: perspectives and future directions. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 37: 41-57.

Wardle P 1991. Vegetation of New Zealand. Cambridge University Press. Pp 194.


North Cape Scientific Reserve and Surrounds

Of serpentine soils: a blog by Christopher Taylor

Wikipedia Cliffed coast website