the Wollemi Pine
 

Sydney Morning Herald
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Found: Tree From The Dinosaur Age, And It's Alive
By James Woodford
Environment Writer

12/14/1994
Sydney Morning Herald
1
Copyright of John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd

Only a few times this century has something so spectacular as the Wollemi pine turned up - a living fossil that has miraculously survived the ravages of unimaginable time in its own little Jurassic Park in the Blue Mountains.

The previously unknown native tree is a towering 40 metres tall, with a three-metre girth, is covered in dense, waxy foliage and has distinctive bubbly bark that makes it look as though it is coated in Coco Pops.

Missing for 150 million years, its discovery in a remote gorge in Wollemi National Park, 200 kilometres west of Sydney, has astonished scientists.

Its only known home is a tiny 5,000 square metre relic grove of prehistoric rainforest in the 500,000-hectare park. So far only 23 adults and 16 juveniles have been found, making it also one of the world's rarest plants.

Once the trees may have covered vast areas of the continent, but as the climate changed the trees apparently retreated into the damp, protected gorge: they have somehow hung on through millions of years of massive climatic change and terrible aridity in more recent prehistoric times, when countless other plants perished.

"The discovery is the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on Earth," said Professor Carrick Chambers, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens. "It is a really major find."

The scientific director at the gardens, Dr Barbara Briggs, said: "On the world scene it's one of the most outstanding discoveries of the century."
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The few scientists who have been alerted to the find so far have put it on a par with the rediscovery of the lungfish in south-east Queensland in 1870, or the coelacanth in the depths of the Indian Ocean in 1938: both fish had previously been known only from 385 million-year-old fossils.

The Wollemi pine was discovered in August by Mr David Noble, a project officer with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), who was spending his weekend in the park. He was canyoning in a 600-metre-deep gorge when the big trees caught his eye. He brought a branch back to show to Mr Wyn Jones, a senior naturalist with the NPWS.

After a cursory glance, Mr Jones told Mr Noble that he thought the branch was from a fern. "No," Mr Noble said, "It's from a bloody great big tree."

Mr Jones first saw the trees in the wild a fortnight later.

"My reaction was amazement," Mr Jones said, "I had never seen anything like it."

Since then Mr Noble, who may have the tree scientifically named after him, Mr Jones and a volunteer, Ms Jan Allen, have made several trips to study the trees.

Today the NSW Government, the NPWS and the Royal Botanic Gardens will formally declare that the Wollemi Pine is a new genus - the scientific classification used to embrace a group of similar species.
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Final identification of the genus was done by Mr Ken Hill, senior botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens. "When you can find 40-metre-high trees 200 kilometres from a major city it makes you wonder what else is out there in places that are even more remote," Mr Hill said.

The only trees like it that have existed on Earth are found in fossils deposited during the time of the dinosaurs. The genus is midway between New Zealand's kauri pines and Australia's Norfolk and hoop pines.

"This tree is a missing link between the kauri pines and the araucaria pines (includes hoop, bunya and Norfolk Pines) it will fill in a whole lot of gaps in our knowledge," said Mr Hill.

Scientists from the Gardens are trying to propagate it as a precaution against collectors stealing seeds or a natural disaster such as a bushfire.

Fewer than 10 people know the location of the trees. "It's going to be one of the stunning conifers of the world," said Mr Hill.

PAGE 8: The chance discovery; waiting wildlife.

BACK FROM THE DEAD: RECENT REDISCOVERIES

WOLLEMI PINE

Fossil Record: 150 million years old

Found: Aug 1994, Wollemi National Park

DAWN REDWOOD

Fossil Record: 70 million years old

Found: 1945, Sichuan provinvce China

BONDEGEZOU (tree kangaroo)

Found: June 1994, Maokop Range, Irian Jaya

COELACANTH

Fossil Record: 385 million years old

Found: 1938, Madagascar Trench

LUNGFISH

Fossil Record: 385 million years old

Discovered: 1870, Burnett and Mary rivers, SE Qld

Copyright 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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