Kevin Burns

Deputy Head of School School of Biological Sciences


Teaching in 2017

AProf Kevin Burns profile picture

Personal bio

PhD University of California Los Angeles | BSc University of California Berkeley 

After receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1993, and a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, I moved to New Zealand from North America in 2001 to work at Victoria University.

I live on the hill above the surf at Lyall Bay with my wife Jenn and three kids (Hayley, Luke and Karson).

Research interests


"To do science is to search for repeated patterns"

Robert MacArthur 1972

If Robert MacArthur is right, then isolated islands are the best place on earth to study evolution. Taxa that are common on continents often fail to reach isolated islands, creating ecological opportunities for more dispersive species. When new colonists arrive on isolated islands, they often evolve in predicable ways to suit their new surroundings - changes in body size, enhanced gender dimorphism, shifts in anti-predatory adaptations, the loss of dispersal ability and the evolution of unusual mutualistic partnerships are common attributes of island endemics. Focusing on the flora of New Zealand and nearby islands in the Southwest Pacific, work in my research group is currently trying to identify repeated patterns in island evolution and the processes responsible for them.

Biogeography, ecology & behaviour

Ecological communities are often much simpler on islands than on the mainland, making them ideal places to explore the processes shaping community assembly. We are working on a range of topics including (1) the distributional ecology of plants on both real islands (small-island archipelagos in New Zealand) and virtual islands (epiphytes, lianas and mistletoes inhabiting isolated host trees), (2) pollination and seed dispersal webs in Zealandia, and (3) the behavioural ecology of several native New Zealand birds, which are fearless of human observers.

Visit the Island Biology research group


Yule, K., & Burns, K. (2017). Adaptive advantages of appearance: Predation, thermoregulation and color of webbing built by New Zealand's largest moth. Ecology. In press.

Burns, K. C. (2016). Size changes in island plants: independent trait evolution in Alyxia ruscifolia (Apocynaceae) on Lord Howe Island. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 119(4), 847-855.

Burns, K. C. (2016). Native–exotic richness relationships: a biogeographic approach using turnover in island plant populations. Ecology, 97(11), 2932-2938.

Kavanagh, P. H., Shaw, R. C., & Burns, K. C. (2016). Potential aposematism in an insular tree species: are signals dishonest early in ontogeny?. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 118(4), 951-958.

Loepelt, J., Shaw, R. C., & Burns, K. C. (2016, June). Can you teach an old parrot new tricks? Cognitive development in wild kaka (Nestor meridionalis). Proc. R. Soc. B., Vol. 283, No. 1832, p. 20153056.

View more publications at Researchgate