Surviving the Fires of Australia

By Nicole Tarnowsky

Jan 22 2020

Amid the tragedy of the Australian fires, the Wollemi Pine is a success story. The devasting fires in Australia continue to threaten not only the country's well being but also the incredible biodiversity of the continent, killing 27 people and a projected billion animals. Fire fighters have been working tirelessly to defend the people and the vast territory under threat. One group of fire fighters has had a special task; to secure the safety of an ancient and rare tree that has existed in Australia for 100 million years.

Wollemia nobilis is a species that for many years was known to scientists only from the fossil record. Some 60 million years ago this was a common tree growing all over the continent. As Australia started drifting north and drying out 30 million years ago, the tree started to disappear. The modern scientific community thought it was extinct. In 1994, forest ranger David Noble rapelled into a narrow canyon and saw a stand of about 20 trees that he didn't recognize. After study by several botanists it was determined that this extremely rare tree was not only a new species but a new genus, previously only known from fossils. See below a type specimen held in the NYBG herbarium, collected by the botanists who named it, in that original stand in 1994.

The importance of that discovery was not lost on New South Wales state Environment Minister Matt Kean. “These pines outlived the dinosaurs, so when we saw the fire approaching we realized we had to do everything we could to save them”, he said, according to an Associated Press story. About a week before the fire was predicted to reach the region where this tree grows, firefighters were dispatched and lowered down by helicopter into the narrow canyon. They sprayed the area with fire retardant and set up irrigation systems to keep the ground wet. As the fire passed over, the smoke was so thick there was no way to know whether the effort had worked.

The smoke cleared. "Finally," Kean said in an interview with the Australian  Broadcasting Corporation, "we were able to get in there and see that, thank goodness, the trees were saved." Several had been charred and two had died. The operation was a huge success, considering that 90% of Wollemi National Park, where these trees grow, was destroyed. Protecting this stand from additional threats will continue and the exact location of these trees is being kept a secret for fear of introduced disease and possible trampling of the young shoots. You'll notice the locality mentioned on the type specimen label is purposely vague. The dinosaur trees live on.

A Closer Look