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A Tree Thought To Be Extinct Found Clinging To Life In Big Bend National Park

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Nature rarely gives us a second chance, and the team doubts we’ll get a third.

In Texas’ Big Bend National Park, botanical specialists from a coalition of more than ten institutions have identified an oak tree that was once believed to be extinct and is now urgently in need of conservation.

Researchers from The Morton Arboretum and the United States Botanic Garden (USBG) were excited to find a single 30-foot-tall Quercus tardifolia (Q. tardifolia) tree, even though it is in bad shape. First written about in the 1930s, the last known living one was thought to have died in 2011.

The vice president of science and conservation at The Morton Arboretum, Murphy Westwood, Ph.D., emphasized that “this work is crucial to preserve the biodiversity that Earth is so quickly losing.” According to her, “If we ignore the decline of Q. tardifolia and other rare, endangered trees, we could see countless domino effects with the loss of other living entities in the ecosystems supported by those trees.”

Westwood says that Q. tardifolia is one of, if not the rarest oak in the world.

Scientists hope that by figuring out why this particular tree is going extinct, they will be able to prevent similar things from happening to other living things. It is still unclear if this Q. tardifolia specimen can be rescued.

The group that found it on May 25, 2022, said it was a terrible scene. The trunk has burn scars and is infected with severe fungus. According to scientists, drought or fire might destroy its existence, and climate change makes this outcome more likely each year.

The group is now cooperating with the National Park Service to mitigate the rapid wildfire threat to the tree. Conservationists in this group are moving quickly to return to look for acorns and try propagation, which is the process of making new plants from a parent plant.

“This is important, collaborative research necessary for the conservation of Q. tardifolia,” adds Carolyn Whiting, a botanist at Big Bend National Park. “The Chisos Mountains support a high diversity of oak species, partly because of the wide range of habitats available in this ‘sky island.’ There is still much to learn about the oaks in the Chisos.”

What information about Quercus tardifolia might molecular analysis reveal?

Oaks have a tendency to hybridize, or crossbreed, which might help them adjust to changing climate conditions like intense heat and new illnesses more quickly. The genetic distinctions between oak species in a particular habitat like Big Bend may also be muddled by this frequent hybridization. The DNA of the recently discovered tree will be compared to DNA from earlier samples of Q. tardifolia using molecular analysis, but the researchers warn that there is a potential that the investigation may produce more questions than it does answers.

This is an interesting challenge, says Andrew Hipp, Ph.D., senior scientist in plant systematics and herbarium director at The Morton Arboretum, whose team will carry out the genetic investigation. 

“We’re looking into whether this tree is genetically similar to other trees that have been previously collected as Q. tardifolia.”

“That should tell us whether this collection is the same as what Cornelius H. Muller named Q. tardifolia. It should also tell us whether this collection of specimens is genetically distinct enough from other closely related oaks in the area to warrant recognition as a species.”

Regardless of classification, Hipp emphasized that it is crucial to conserve all of life’s genetic diversity rather than just specific species. He defined species as “genetically distinct populations that we can generally recognize in the field”.

“But they aren’t the be-all and end-all of conservation. We also aim to protect the functional variation within species. Leaf forms, physiological responses to drought and fire and even tree longevity are all attributes that can be shared among populations and among species by gene flow.

“The functional variation that these new collections represent may be just what is needed to help oaks of the region adapt to environmental changes in the near or distant future.”

Ecosystems need oaks

Because their acorns cannot be conventionally stored as seeds for conservation, oaks are unique among tree species. Researchers claim that in order to conserve them, either in the wild or in live collections, botanical gardens must be involved.

The people who found the Q. tardifolia tree are worried that it is not making acorns. To ensure the future of the oak, other propagation strategies, including as grafting, are being studied.

“Across the planet, oaks serve as an ecological anchor cleaning air, filtering water, sequestering carbon dioxide and supporting countless fungi, insects, birds and mammals,” explains Westwood.

“When one is lost, we don’t know what else we might permanently lose in its wake,” she adds.

However, Westwood, Pell, and others caution that in order to ensure the survival of endangered trees, conservation efforts like these call for teamwork projects like the Global Conservation Consortium for Oak, the participation of botanical gardens, and a range of scientific experts.

“In many ways, this tree is an ancient relic. Due to the changing climate, the world is completely different now than when it evolved,” said Wesley Knapp, chief botanist at NatureServe, who participated in the expedition.

“It is incumbent upon us to learn from it and protect it while we still can in order to inform future conservation efforts,” he said.

“Nature rarely hands us a second chance, and I doubt we’ll get a third. We won’t waste it.”

Image Credit: Getty

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