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Prehistoric flora rewrites the history pages

Prehistoric flora rewrites the history pages
In 1994, in the southern hemisphere, touted as the ‘The Land Down Under’, once the sole habitat of the Aborigines, the primal, the flattest, and the aridest inhabited continent called Australia, a country steeped in geological contradictions and deep-seated enigmas—the world got bowled over a discovery made of a prehistoric flora. In the Mesozoic Era (252-66m years ago), when the dinosaurs once roamed this Blue Planet, strangely, alongside those prehistoric reptiles, lived and thrived a species of wild trees. Miraculously, they outstripped the dinosaurs and survived the ravages of time and natural catastrophes for all these legions of millenniums to this day—a bizarre mystery. The discovery was made by fluke by David Noble, a field officer from the National Parks and Wildlife Service of New South Wales (NSW), with two of his avid bushwalker friends while abseiling down rugged canyons of Wollemi National Park. Established in 1979, covering an area of 5,017 sq km, Wollemi National Park is just 130 km northwest of Sydney, the largest city in Australia.

Scarcely did David realize then the unearthing of the mysterious tree would go down in the annals of history.

While having lunch in a secluded gorge with his mates, David, also a botanist, noticed a bunch of strange trees he had never seen before in his career. Curious, he collected a few leaves as samples to be identified by experts at the NPWS lab stationed in Blue Mountains, New South Wales. A passionate backpacker, and a fanatic of rappelling, David was obsessed with exploring newer gorges, canyons, and caves, least heard of and virtually untrodden by others in the vast wilderness of NSW. In his career with NSW National Parks, he had, nigh, scoured every inch of the Wollemi wilderness within the park. It soon led to the finding that the strange species of trees were none other than the prehistoric Wollemi pines that had lived in the epoch when dinosaurs dominated the Earth. Long believed by palaeo-botanists to be extinct and considered as just fossil remains, they got christened with the names the ‘Dinosaur Trees’, and ‘The Living Fossil Trees’, and several others. The species was named the Wollemi Nobilis after the groundbreaker, David Noble. The news spread like a wild bushfire and took the world by storm—it was as good as rediscovering live dinosaurs, alive and kicking. A miracle, indeed. “The Wollemia nobilis was common across Australia from more than 100m years ago to about 60m years ago. But, as the continent dried out while drifting north, about 30m years ago, the trees started to disappear,” wrote Teo Armus for a Washington Post story. The mysterious Wollemi pines/conifer trees grow as tall as 40 meters and belong to the evergreen family, bearing cones with spindly branches, coarse dark bark, and dense fern-like, lime-green foliage. The only kind in its genus, the Wollemi pine’s base, can get as thick as 1.2 meters. Botanists contend the Wollemi pine natural self-coppicing (sprouting multiple trunks) from its base enabled it to withstand the worst catastrophes. Australia has a lengthy history of natural disasters, such as severe heatwaves, drought, tropical cyclones, rainstorms, and summer bushfires. It was nothing short of an absolute miracle they miraculously endured all these years by the millions. Today, only 100-odd numbers of adult trees in different stands and 200 to 300 maturing juveniles remain in an area of 10 square kilometers in Wollemi National Park and the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, NSW,  Australia. Wollemi Park was categorized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. These prehistoric pines are found only in Australia's Wollemi National Park and no other place on Earth. The NSW kept the Wollemi pines’ location classified to avert potential pathogen infection, vandalism, and illegal collection and to thwart human encroachment and predation. The primal species survive in a deep gorge between soaring sandstone cliffs, some from the Triassic period, in the Wollemi National Park. The NSW has still kept the exact location a ‘closely-guarded secret’. Like many endangered wild species of trees worldwide, the Wollemi pines, despite having survived millenniums, stand critically endangered today, claim senior phytologists. And one of the threats includes bushfires, among others. In 2019-2020 a chain of colossal bushfires dubbed the ‘Black Summer,’ which swept across the Aussieland, proved cataclysmic in Australia’s environmental history. The mega holocaust seared over 10m hectares, primarily forests in southeast Australia. A billion animals perished, and several endangered species—driven to extinction. In New South Wales alone, five million hectares of forestland, including some sections of the Wollemi National Park, was struck down by the devastating inferno and brought in its wake a colossal loss of human lives and property and a ‘silent death’ to invaluable flora and fauna by the millions. And, to the horror of the Wollemi and NSW Parks officials, the bushfires threatened to destroy the small grove of fewer than 200 of the last surviving Wollemi pines in their mysterious haven in a deep gorge. Leaping flames and billowing waves of impenetrable smoke reaching the sky were reported approaching the site from Giant Gospers Mountain. The blaze was, however, doused as the Australian government, in a sweep-operation, mobilized the NSW Park officials on time to drop fire retardant in the area and deployed choppers to winch down highly pro firefighters into the ravine to install a hydration system to provide ample moisture to the trees to fight off the scorching heat. As the news about the safety of the iconic species traveled across, the anxious Australians sighed in relief. And, when in March 1999, the news broke out that the Queensland Forestry Research Institutes and Birkdale Nursery were going to propagate Wollemi pine commercially for sale to the public, it created an uproar in Australia. Soon, every Aussie household could have their cherished plant in their garden, patio, balcony, verandah, and backyard. Today, the potted Wollemi saplings get marketed internationally, and in New South Wales, Australia, it is priced at Aud $50. The first limited release of Wollemi pines was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York for a whopping Aud $3,600 plus. The park curators maintained that should the legendary species perish, someday in the wild, it will live on across the globe, leastways to adorn people's gardens and homes—and thus save the prehistoric species perpetually from becoming extinct. The phenomenal scheme taken up by the Australian government bulwarked the legacy of the dinosaur trees. [email protected]