Ancient trees in Australia were devastated by the recent bushfires there. Nightcap oaks have lived through a lot, but humanity’s influence could completely wipe them out.
Along the southern edge of Australia’s Nightcap Range, 200 or so gray trees were the last ones standing as the continent-crushing fires were finally put out. These ancient trees are so old that they can trace their roots to the bygone supercontinent of Gondwana, according to The Atlantic. These trees, known as the Eidothea hardeniana, have survived a lot, including the ending of the dinosaurs. However, they may not survive humanity’s impact.
The 2019–2020 bushfire season, which was mainly caused by a toxic blend of multiyear drought, several months of extreme heat, and the effects of fossil fuel emissions (human activity), decimated at least 10% of the population of Nightcap oaks and harmed another 30%. The heat and the drought were both caused or worsened by our impact on the planet. What you do today may set off a chain reaction that won’t be felt for another 30 years, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Our actions, no matter how large or small, matter greatly.
Robert Kooyman, a botanist at the Macquarie University, told The Atlantic that “losing any individual is a disaster. Elements of what you lose … are irreplaceable. If we’ve lost some of its genetic diversity, in evolutionary terms that’s lost forever.” Kooyman was the one who discovered the Nightcap grove in 1988. It took him 12 years to realize that it was part of the Proteaceae family of plants — which has a family lineage that extends back a whopping 120+ million years!
“While the Nightcap grove is ancient, the scientific community was unaware of its existence until a few decades ago. In 1988, Kooyman was walking along a creek in a remote part of Nightcap National Park when he discovered a juvenile tree with elliptical, sawtooth-edged leaves he couldn’t identify. The tree seemed to have some affinity to Proteaceae, an early family of flowering plants with a lineage going back more than 120 million years. But its identity would remain a mystery until Kooyman returned to the same patch of forest 12 years later and came upon specimens of the same type of tree in different stages of growth: a seedling, a sapling, and an adult tree with fleshy golden fruits underneath it. When he returned a few months after that, he discovered its tubular, cream-colored flowers.
“With the entire life cycle of the plant now evident, Kooyman and fellow botanist Peter Weston of the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney soon confirmed that the tree was, in fact, a member of Proteaceae. They set about formally describing the species, and in 2002, they gave it a name: Eidothea hardeniana.”
The name honors Gwen Harden, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden and one of the authors of The Proteaceae of New South Wales. Eidothea was a goddess from Homer’s The Odyssey. Kooyman and Weston saw Harden as a goddess of the rain forest and wanted to support women in science by acknowledging her contributions — what better way to do that than name a species of a tree after her?
The fires that devastated Australia left a grim sight for Kooyman, who traveled to the Nightcap area in late November. Charred rainforest trees, split and dying along with piles of still burning wood, were everywhere.
However, there is a bit of hope for a new life. The fires happened before the trees bore fruit, so new seedlings could take root this year. Importantly, the trees grow slowly. To emphasize how slowly these trees grow, centuries could pass before any new seedlings reach reproductive maturity.
In light of an ever-growing, more volatile annual fire season, things will most likely get worse before they get better. If we continue on the path we are on — refusing to acknowledge that our impact on the climate is real and deadly or to work hard enough to change — the newly named Eidothea hardeniana could become extinct. A species of trees that has survived continent splitting and tremendous global cooling, that has survived from the age of the dinosaurs, could become extinct due to human-caused global heating and related climatic effects.
Featured image via NASA
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