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The Times of London
Jurassic era relics found in remote Australian forest
Roger Maynard in Sydney

The Times of London
(Copyright 1994)

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.

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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 prehistoric times.

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 that way.

Copyright 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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BBC Story: Jurassic pot plants on sale soon
The Wollemi Pine, a plant from Jurassic times which survived in a single isolated Australian grove, is set for an amazing comeback. In 2005/6, small plants cultivated from the tree once thought to have gone extinct will go on sale to the public.
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