A Living Dinosaur
The Wollemi Pine was alive in the Cretaceous Period, living alongside the dinosaurs. It was thought to be extinct, until a surprise discovery in remote New South Wales.
David Noble was raised in the Blue Mountains, on the outskirts of Sydney.
The rugged area, protected by a National Park, is famed for its scenery, and native flaura and fauna. David's father John was an outdoorsman, and amateur plant enthusiast, and the two would spend long hours hiking through the local countryside, identifying different plant species.
David carried his father's hobbies over into adulthood. By his twenties he was a field officer for the Parks and Wildlife Service, and well known for his expert knowledge of the Blue Mountains region. He spent most of his free time hiking and camping, abseiling, mountain climbing, and exploring.
In 1994, David Noble discovered something astounding.
In June of that year, Noble set out on a hiking trip with some friends in an area wedged between the northern Blue Mountains and the Hunter Valley. It was a remote spot, difficult to access, and not well mapped.
While exploring, Noble's party came across a series of heavily forested canyons. They spentt a few days exploring these; abseiling down the steep canyon walls, and then camping and hiking along the canyon floors.
It was a new area for all of them, and the scenery was dramatic. But the plant life was familiar; mostly sassafras and coachwood trees, common to the region.
One day, having reached the floor of a new canyon, Noble and his party followed a winding stream through the foliage. There was no path, and the undergrowth was thick, making progress difficult.
Nevertheless, they pushed on, twice having to swim in the stream when the forest grew too dense.
'Noble was walking in front of the others, and finally found himself in an area that was more open.
Ahead of him, big, strange trees were growing. Their bark was weirdly bubbled, and reminded Noble of Coco Pops.
Below the trees were mounds of debris, as if someone had raked the forest.'
-'The Wollemi Pine' by James Woodford
For the first time in a long time, Noble was not able to identify what he was looking at. Neither was anyone in his party. No one had seen anything quite like these trees before.
Dutifully, Noble collected samples of the leaves and bark, and later sent them to the Royal Botanical Society in Sydney.
There, experts were stunned by what they saw.
Noble had managed to find living specimens of a tree from a genus known as 'Wollemia', which had been thought extinct for at least 2 million years. Previously, Wollemia had only been known from the fossil record, where it had been recorded numerous times.
Wollemia is an evergreen tree that had flourished in Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica during the Cretaceous Period (between 145 - 66 million years ago). Its distinctive flat leaves and bark have been preserved in numerous fossils, and it is thought the tree was one of the most common of this period.
It survived the mass extinction event that put an end to the age of the dinosaurs, exactly why is unclear, and remained a common plant until approximately 40 million years ago. Then, Wollemia's footprint in the fossil record begins to decline, and the last known examples are from Tasmania, around 2 million years ago.
This remarkable tree, that had lived alongside the dinosaurs, had outlived them by millions of years, but had fallen victim to some other, unknown extinction.
There were about 100 Wollemi trees in the stand that Noble had discovered.
Due to their scarce numbers, the New South Wales government decided to keep the location secret (it has never been formally announced, to this day). This, along with the remote location of the spot, has offered the remaining trees some protection. The National Park they were found in was renamed 'Wollemi National Park', and the individual species named 'Wollemi Nobilis', after their discoverer.
Nevertheless, they have been located by others in the years since.
In 2005, the Parks and Wildlife Service announced that they had detected an outbreak of a fungal disease in the Wollemi population. The cause was thought to be unauthorised hikers, who could have carried in spores on their boots and equipment.
Efforts have been made to preserve the species from such events.
In the wild, Wollemi Pine's have been transplanted to a new, even more remote location. The idea is to help them re-establish a proper population in the wild, rather than just a few, vulnerable clumps.
Wollemi's have also been cultivated and propagated, and can now be planted at home. They e are even sold as a kind of Christmas Tree each year. Specimens have been sent all over the world, and groves have been successfully grown in the USA and Japan, even in Scotland.
In 2006, the Royal Botanical Garden in Sydney planted a Wollemi Pine on their grounds, which is flourishing to this day.