Park Ranger Discovers Dinosaur Evergreens, Plants Assumed Extinct For Millions Of Years

The Guardian

In an astonishing tale hailing from Australia, a discovery emerges that seems straight out of a science fiction narrative, akin to a botanical equivalent of Jurassic Park or King Kong. Deep within the rugged mountains, a copse of pine trees belonging to a species that originated in the Cretaceous Era has been unearthed, defying belief and capturing the imagination of botanists worldwide.

These remarkable living relics, often referred to as “living fossils,” have endured the cataclysmic events that wiped out the dinosaurs, including the impact of a comet and the ensuing global firestorms, as well as two ice ages, persisting against the odds to thrive in our modern era. Australian botanists regard these specimens as a priceless national treasure, shrouded in secrecy to protect their delicate existence.

The Wollemi pine, which traces its origins back a staggering 91 million years, was thought to have vanished from the Earth approximately 2 million years ago, as indicated by the fossil record. However, a miraculous discovery in the remote reaches of the Blue Mountains near Sydney in 1994 revealed a cluster of 90 of these ancient trees nestled in the high peaks.

Over the past thirty years, a covert team of specialists from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) of Australia has been meticulously propagating small clusters of Wollemi pines in undisclosed locations, safeguarding their survival and ensuring their legacy for generations to come, with the audacious goal of seeing them through another 91 million years.

Adding to the allure of this botanical anomaly is the Wollemi’s distinct appearance, defying expectations of a typical pine tree found in suburban landscapes. Adorned with foliage reminiscent of Granny Smith apples arranged in fern-like patterns and bark resembling Coco-puffs, this ancient tree stands as a testament to resilience and the enduring wonders of the natural world.

“Wollemi Pine seedlings and saplings grow less than one centimeter a year. They won’t mature until they can reach the rainforest canopy and access the sunlight above,” research scientist Berin Mackenzie said when speaking to the national news. He also said that they grow extremely slowly.

The extent of security measures implemented for the protection of the Wollemi pine is truly remarkable. Once a stand of just 90 trees, these ancient conifers now thrive across three carefully chosen translocation sites. Access to these sites is strictly limited, with visits being exceedingly rare and only permitted under the most essential circumstances. Workers must undergo rigorous decontamination procedures to prevent the introduction of any seeds or pathogens that could endanger the delicate ecosystem surrounding the trees.

ABC News Australia recently featured a scientist who humorously pondered the scent of a Wollemi pine, jesting that it might resemble the smell of methyl alcohol used in the sanitization process.

Trespassing into these sanctuaries is not taken lightly, as it is met with severe consequences under the Australian Biodiversity Conservation Act, potentially resulting in up to two years of imprisonment and a hefty fine of $330,000. Such strict measures underscore the critical importance of safeguarding these rare and vulnerable species. Concerns over the spread of parasitic tree diseases further highlight the fragility of the original grove, prompting heightened vigilance and protection efforts.

“One of the biggest dangers that we have is people actually come and visit these. We know people want to but they really can’t,” NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe shared.

Wollemi pine seedlings have been dispatched globally to botanical gardens and are available for purchase at nurseries. This initiative aims to preserve the species and dissuade individuals from attempting to access the grove and translocation sites.

“The species was discovered in the nick of time and on the brink of extinction. We have a really rare and important opportunity here to intervene and help it persist,” Berin Mackenzie, a research scientist, told ABC News Australia.

The initial cohort of scientists involved in the project are now either entering retirement or approaching it, and they perceive the opportunity to impart their knowledge and expertise to the next generation as a genuine privilege.


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