The Times of London
Jurassic era relics found in remote Australian forest
Roger Maynard in Sydney
The Times of London
A LIVING fossil, which dates back 150
million years, has been found in a remote Australian rainforest.
Scientists at Sydney's Royal Botanic
Gardens yesterday announced what they believe to be one of the most important
discoveries of its kind this century.
Clearly overwhelmed by the significance,
Professor Carrick Chambers, director of the Gardens, said: "The discovery is the
equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on earth."
The Wollemi pine, named after
the national park in which it has lived undetected, possibly since the Jurassic
period, lies in an isolated gorge in the middle of 11 4 million acres of
bushland in the Blue Mountains about 120 miles west of Sydney.
David Noble, a project officer with
Australia's National Parks and Wildlife Service, was on a weekend bush walk in
August when he abseilled into the 1,800ft gorge. Amid the dense vegetation was a
group of 42 trees, the like of which he had never seen. More than 120ft tall
with a ten-foot girth, they had cones on the top and and a bubbly bark. Their
exact location is being kept secret to protect them.
Mr Noble compared the trunks' knobbly
surfaces to a children's breakfast cereal. "It's as if you had a tree trunk and
just sprayed it with Coco Pops," he said.
At first he thought the trees might have
been introduced by seed dropped by birds. But after extensive research and
examination by experts, the Wollemi pine was formally declared a
new genus the scientific classification used to embrace a group of similar
species. The only trees anything like them were found in fossils deposited in
Dr Barbara Briggs, scientific director of
the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, said: "It really is a living fossil. It's
not only a new species but a new genus and the last of a group that goes back
well into the Jurassic times. It links the history of our flora to the time
before Australia was a continent of its own."
Dr Briggs hailed it as one of Australia's
most outstanding scientific discoveries of the century, comparable to the living
fossil finds of the dawn redwood tree in China in 1944, and the coelacanth fish
in 1938 off Madagascar.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, the New South
Wales government and the National Parks and Wildlife Service yesterday jointly
announced that the Wollemi pine is a newly discovered genus.
"In one way it will be our own Christmas
tree. It's been discovered at Christmas (and) it's a conifer. It's going to be
the Australian Christmas tree," said Chris Hartcher, the Environment Minister
for New South Wales.
Scientists will try to propagate the
species in case collectors attempt to steal the seeds or a natural disaster,
such as a bushfire, kills them.
Not that many people are likely to discover
the exact location, which can be reached only after several hours of walking
through almost impenetrable bush. The valley where the Wollemi pine has survived 150 million years of climatic change is likely to stay