Mention fossils, and images of fish skeletons imprinted in rock or stone-coated dinosaur bones come to mind. A fossil, after all, is something preserved from a past geologic age. But the more humans explore the depths, peaks, nooks, and crevices of our planet, we discover more “living fossils.” In fact, you can see some for yourself at the Safari Park—the Wollemi pines in Walkabout Australia.
BY Wendy Perkins
Photography by Tammy Spratt
Next time you visit the Safari Park’s Walkabout Australia, take note after you leave the kangaroo area. Standing before you will be a tree species that was thought to have died out millions of years ago. The rediscovery and ongoing efforts to preserve these ancient sentinels is quite a tale.
With their tough, fern-type fronds and oddly “bubbled” bark, Wollemi pines Wollemia nobilis are distinctly unusual-looking trees. With fewer than 100 left in the wild, they are also one of the rarest plants in the world. The tree’s common name is a bit of a misnomer: it’s not a pine at all. As a member of the Araucariaceae family, W. nobilis is a close relative of Norfolk Island pines, the kauri, and monkey puzzle trees.
Mystery in the Mountains
Botanists knew these trees had existed; but they were previously only known from 120-million-year-old fossil records, and they were thought to be extinct. Then, one Saturday in 1994, a trio of men in an almost inaccessible part of Australia’s Blue Mountains came across some trees they didn’t recognize.
The men were in the Wollemi National Park, about 125 miles west of Sydney. Wollemi is an Australian aboriginal word meaning “look around you.” Fittingly, that is just what the hikers were doing when they discovered a thicket of about 40 massive, conifer-type trees in an acre of steep-sided canyon. One of the hikers was a National Parks and Wildlife Service officer, David Noble—and his role in the discovery is honored and reflected in the species name, nobilis. David carefully noted the spot, and he alerted officials to the unexpected find.
Under a cloak of heavy secrecy to protect the location, eager scientists dug into identifying the unknown trees. Eventually, they found fossil evidence in stone that matched the living trees. They then realized that the tree they had thought to be extinct still had its roots firmly planted in the modern world.
Since that first extraordinary discovery, two more small populations have been found. However, there are so few Wollemi pines in the wild that they are categorized as a Critically Endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. When something is as rare as this tree, collectors often come calling. To protect these ancient treasures, their exact locations remain a closely guarded secret.
However, scientists and horticulturists are working to ensure the species survives, and is known to the world. One way is through propagation techniques and growing the trees in gardens. Actually, it is possible to buy a Wollemi pine yourself if you search the Internet. The proceeds from sales of plants and seeds help support the research and preservation of the species in the wild.
In the Blue Mountains, the biggest tree towers 130 feet above the ground and is about 10 feet wide. The Wollemi pines at the Safari Park and Zoo are young, though, and have a long way to grow. As they do, their appearance will change. Right now, the bark has a rough texture, but older trees have bark that seems to be covered in brownish-black bubbles. The way the trees branch out often creates characteristic multiple trunks as well, another odd growth pattern for a conifer.
Watching the Wollemi pines grow at the Park over the next decades is something worth pointing out to friends and family—not to mention sharing their “long lost” story. On your next stroll through Walkabout Australia, stop to marvel at this blast from the past that’s come “Back to the Future!”