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11 Jul 2018

No Plants No Past: Protecting Our Prehistoric Pine

Since it was accidentally discovered in 1994, the ancient Wollemi Pine still captures the imagination of the world, and scientists have been researching ways to ensure this curious and critically endangered conifer can survive the threat of fire and disease.

The botanical discovery of the century

The discovery of a tiny population of conifer trees thought to be extinct for 60 million years was dubbed the botanical discovery of the century. What makes the story even more amazing is that it was right under our nose, just 150km northwest of Sydney.

Principal Research Scientist from the Australian Botanic Garden, Dr Cathy Offord, is one of the few people who have been allowed to trek to the secret canyon site where some trees as old as 1000 years are growing in Wollemi National Park. 

“It takes a few hours to get to the site and involves abseiling down a cliff face to get to the gorge. When I finally saw them emerging above the canopy the first time, it was a really magical moment,” Dr Offord said.

Our living fossil

The foliage of the Wollemi Pine is virtually identical to that of one of its supposed fossil ancestors, the late Agathis jurassica from the Jurassic period from 150 million years ago (pictured below).

Every species also has unique pollen anatomy, and it is often the best way to differentiate between each plant species.

“We only knew about the Wollemi Pine from a match between its pollen and that of the fossilized Dilwynites pollen, dated at two million years old,” Dr Offord said.

“From then on, the fossil record is silent and scientists assumed the genus to which this pollen belonged had become extinct,” she said.  

Protecting the future of this blast from the past

Dr Offord has been researching the Wollemi Pine for over 20 years and she features in the fourth episode of our new Branch Out podcast, No Plants No Past: Protecting our Prehistoric Pine. 

“The discovery of the Wollemi Pine was on the front page of nearly every major newspaper around the world because it was like discovering a family of dinosaurs,” Dr Offord said.

“It captured the attention and imagination of the world because it offers a glimpse into our past, but now we’re trying to protect its future,” she said. 

Because the Wollemi Pine is so rare, one catastrophic bushfire could wipe out the original wild population. Dr Offord and the scientists at the Australian Botanic Garden (ABG) have grown some Wollemi Pines to perform crucial fire experiments.

“We actually found that a mild fire stimulates the growth of a Wollemi Pine, but a severe fire will kill it,” Dr Offord said.

Our living fossil is also threatened by the deadly plant disease Phytophthora, which has started attacking some of the plants in the wild and causing devastating root rot.

“We have also performed some other experiments on the cultivated Wollemi Pines at ABG where we have painted the trunks of the trees in a chemical,” Dr Offord said.

“The protective chemical is absorbed by the plant to protect it from Phytophthora. Think of it as a flu injection for Wollemi Pines!” Dr Offord said.

Photo: Principal Research Scientist and Wollemi Pine expert Dr Cathy Offord (right) and Branch Out podcast host Vanessa Fuchs (left).
Survival techniques: plant sex and growing mega clumps of trunks

While there are only about 100 trees growing at the secret site in the wild, Wollemi Pines have some pretty cool survival tricks up their bark.

“One of the unique features of the Wollemi Pine, and one that we believe has helped it last for so long, is its self-coppicing ability,” Dr Offord said.

“This means it can grow up to 150 individual trunks, often forming a mega clump of trunks.

“Rock falls are common in its habitat, so if one damages a trunk, a new leader will take over,” she said.

Another fascinating survival technique is the Wollemi Pine’s ability to self-fertilise using its easily identified male and female cones.

Want to see a Wollemi Pine or learn more online?

If you want to see what a Wollemi Pine looks like, visit the 20 year old tree growing behind the Visitor Centre at the Australian Botanic Garden at Mount Annan or at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.

We also have extensive information about the Wollemi Pine on our website too. See the answers to our ten most frequently asked questions relating to the ancestry, ecology, habitat, growth and protection of Wollemi Pine here. 

If you want to know more about how world leading scientists are developing solutions to the world’s most critical environmental and biodiversity issues, please head to our science page.

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