the Wollemi Pine

Guess What is Towering, Prehistoric and Still Alive in Australia?
London, Thursday December 15, 1994
Compiled by Our Staff From Dispatches

SYDNEY - Scientists have discovered a real-life Jurassic Park. There are no dinosaurs in this lost world - just 39 prehistoric pine trees that were thought to have been extinct.

The trees, related to a species that existed 150 million years ago, have been found west of Sydney, but the New South Wales Government said Wednesday that it would keep their exact location secret to ensure their safety.

The previously unknown trees, some measuring 40 meters (130 feet) tall and three meters in diameter, are in a deep gorge in the Wollemi National Park, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains. They have been named the Wolleni Pines.

"The discovery is the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on Earth," said Carrick Chambers, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens. He said Wednesday that the only other discovery of its kind was in 1944, when another prehistoric tree species was found in China.

"It really is a living fossil," said Barbara Briggs, the institution's scientific director.

A National Parks and Wildlife Service officer, David Noble, came across the trees while exploring a 600 meter (965-foot) gorge in the park in August.

"Initially I didn't think it was anything new," he said Wednesday.

The trees, covered in dense, waxy foliage with distinctive bubbly bark that makes them look as if they are coated with brown chocolate, occupy a tiny 5,000-square-meter grove of prehistoric rainforest in the 500,000 hectare park.

So far, 23 mature trees and 16 younger ones have been found, making them also among the world's rarest plants. The oldest tree is believed to be from 200 to 300 years old.

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"While the trees can be identified as pines, or conifers their closest relatives are extinct plants only found in fossils from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods about 65 million to 200 million years ago," said Ken Hill, a botanist with Sydney Botanic Gardens.

"This is probably one of the most significant botanical finds of this century," Mr. Hill said. "It's a very exciting find."

The discovery of the trees had been kept a secret with only a few scientists notified, but a Sydney newspaper broke the story on Wednesday, prompting the New South Wales government to confirm their existence.

"Their location is going to be kept secret and we will be ensuring that, both in a security sense and from a, fire protection point of view, because we don't want this unique area trampled upon or damaged in any way," said the New South Wales environment minister, Chris Hartcher.

"The fact that such a large plant can go undiscovered for so long is a clear indication that there is more work to be done before we can say we understand our environment," he added,

Ms. Briggs compared the discovery of the pines to those of the coelacanth fish in 1938 off Madagascar and the dawn redwood tree in 1944 in China,

Once, the Wollemi Pines would have covered vast areas of the world, but as the climate changed the few remaining trees survived only in this damp, protected gorge

"This is a plant family that was widespread, including the northern hemisphere," she said, before the "great extinction" when "we lost the dinosaurs."

"It's been in a very sheltered spot and I think it's escaped fire for a very long time." she said.

"It's extremely inaccessible," Mr. Hartcher said. "It's a good day's walk for anybody who wants to walk to the area. There are no paths there."

(AP, Reuters)

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