Reviving a Leafy Dinosaur: The Wollemi Pine
A popular idea in science fiction is the resurrection of prehistoric creatures such as dinosaurs, mammoths, and even Neanderthals. In reality, such a resurrection of a prehistoric creature has yet to be achieved, although there is currently an attempt to create a hybrid mammoth-elephant embryo by a Harvard team. A related topic popular among people who think about ancient beasts from remote epochs is the idea of discovering a relict population of an otherwise extinct species. Legends of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé in Africa and the Almas in the Caucasus Mountains are examples of mythical discoveries of such relict populations.
In the plant world, the botanical equivalent of discovering a living dinosaur has actually been made. A species of the Wollemi Pine tree, Wollemia nobilis , was discovered still living in a wilderness area west of Sydney, Australia. The tree is a member of a genus that first evolved over 200 million years ago. It is now in the process of being revived through the worldwide cultivation of the plant for gardening purposes.
Wollemi Pine, one of the oldest known tree species. Kew Gardens, London. ( CC BY 2.0 )
From Domination to Fossilization
Wollemi Pines evolved on Pangaea when all the continents were still joined during the early Mesozoic. Because of this, close relatives of the tree are found in Australia, South America and other parts of the Southern Hemisphere. For 100 million years, the Wollemi Pine tree was one of the dominant genera of trees in the Southern Hemisphere. Dramatic climate changes during the Neogene and Quaternary led to the dying out of most Wollemi Pine populations. Today, the only place where Wollemi Pines are still found alive in the wild, not as fossils is the Wollemi National Park in the Blue Mountains.
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Wollemi National Park at Baerami along the Bylong Valley Road, NSW Australia ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
The Wollemi Wilderness
The Wollemi National Park is one of the most isolated and rugged areas in the world. Numerous canyons and gorges carpeted by thick rainforest make it very difficult to navigate. The canyons also create pocket ecological communities which can survive for millennia on end in relative isolation from the rest of the biosphere. It is probably for this reason that this Wollemi Pine species was preserved here.
The living Wollemi Pines were discovered in 1994 by an Australian botanist, David Noble, who was hiking through the area when he came across a peculiar tree with multiple trunks and strange bark that looked like bubbles of chocolate. He was familiar with paleobotany and it did not take him long to recognize the plant for what is was.
Wollemi Pine. Mount Tomah Botanic Garden. NSW ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
A Distinctive Pine
The Wollemi Pine species is a member of the genus Wollemia, a genus of pine tree within the family Araucariaceae. Other genera in the family include Agathis and Araucaria, both of which have similarities to Wollemia. All three genera date to the early Mesozoic Era.
Agathis Jurassica, plant fossil from Talbragar. Related to the modern Wollemi Pine. ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
The Wollemi Pine truly looks like a tree from another epoch. It grows multiple trunks and will shed them regularly. It is a gymnosperm plant like all trees from the Triassic. Angiosperm plants don’t appear in the fossil record until the Cretaceous. Because of the multiple trunks, it is difficult to count the total number of individual trees. So far, botanists have discovered a total of about 240-276 individuals, 40-76 adults and 200 juveniles. One massive individual tree actually has 160 separate trunks!
Two features of the plant that make it particularly distinctive are its unusual bark and the fact that it sheds entire branches instead of leaves. The plant has also been shown to be able to grow at temperatures as cold as -12 C and at least as hot as 45 C. The plant evolved in the hothouse world of the Mesozoic so it makes sense that it would be able to withstand very warm temperatures.