Christmas 2019 was bleak Down Under. Australian bush fires showed no respect for the Advent period. Our TV screens were filled with heartbreaking news from Australia. There were devastating losses of lives, homes and wildlife. Initially, it was feared that the critically endangered population of Wollemi Pines had been lost too. Unlike many other Australian species, this tree does not have any fire survival mechanisms. Fortunately, these precious, rare trees were saved by firemen. Their precarious survival in their native, secret and secluded location highlights the value of international cooperation in plant conservation.
The Wollemi Pine, Wollemia nobilis, is a member of the Araucariaceae or Araucaria family. Despite its description as a rare living fossil, the Wollemi Pine was discovered by the botanical world as recently as 1994. It survived the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago! Prior to its discovery in Australia’s Blue Mountains, it had only been known from 150 million-year-old fossilised leaves in sedimentary rock.
Analysis revealed that scientists had already found its granular, fossilised pollen in sedimentary rock in the 1960s. At that time, it was believed to be an extinct species and given the genus name of Dilwynites. There was huge excitement when the pollen match was made.
The tree’s Latin name is Wollemia nobilis. Wollemia comes from the Wollemi National Park where it was found in a previously unexplored, secluded valley. The epithet nobilis is reputed to acknowledge its discoverer David Noble. He was an Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service Field Officer. He abseiled into the canyon with 2 colleagues. Noticing an unfamiliar tree, he collected a fallen branch for botanical identification.
Unlike Pines, the evergreen leaves are not needle-shaped (see above photo). The bark is notable for its knobbly texture. Male and female cones are borne on the same tree. The female cones are positioned higher up. The cones disintegrate to release their winged seeds in the wind.
DNA analysis revealed that the trees are genetically identical. This has huge implications for their survival. Lack of genetic variation places them at risk of being wiped out by diseases such as Phytophthora cinnamomi.
Climate Emergency Risk
2019’s bush fires placed the ongoing survival of the Wollemi Pine in sharp relief. A rare population at a single location is especially vulnerable. The climate emergency increases the risk of future, catastrophic wildfires.
Illegal Trade Risk
The secluded location is kept secret from the curious general public and illegal plant traders. Inaccessibility and Australian law help to protect the tree in its native environment. Lawbreakers face a huge fine and the prospect of two years in prison.
International Conservation Efforts
The tree has been successfully propagated from seeds and cuttings. These have been shared with the world’s botanical gardens to ensure the living fossil’s ongoing and remarkable survival. Thus, my first opportunity to see the extraordinary Wollemi Pine was in the Harris Garden at the University of Reading.
© Karen Andrews
References and Further Reading
- Bardell, David (2006): The Discovery of a Tree (Wollemia nobilis) from the Age of the Dinosaurs. Bios, 77(1), 20-23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4608766
- Kew (2020): Wollemia nobilis, Wollemi Pine. Plants. Kew.org
- Kew Science (2020): Wollemia nobilis. Plants of the World Online.
- Morton, Adam (2020): ‘Dinosaur trees’: firefighters save endangered Wollemi pines from NSW bushfires. The Guardian. 15 January 2020
- Palin, Megan & AAP (2019): Black Christmas: Bush fires rage on as hundreds of homes destroyed. news.com.au 25 December 2019
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.
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