Wollemi pines: time travellers from a different Australia

James Woodford
Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

Imagine if more than a quarter of a century ago, bushwalker David Noble had not stumbled across the stand of Wollemi pines and they had remained undiscovered.

The trees survive in three stands in just one remote canyon in a massive wilderness to Sydney’s north-west. Until they were found, they were a species clinging to the edge of the precipice of extinction – just one disaster away from vanishing.

A quarter of a century for a species with a lineage going back to the age of dinosaurs is not even a fraction of a millionth of a blip.

Related: 'Dinosaur trees': firefighters save endangered Wollemi pines from NSW bushfires

And given the monumental effort that has gone into saving this desperately endangered wild population it is highly likely that had they not been found in 1994, then the past few months would have seen them wiped out without anyone ever knowing they still existed. The miracle of their discovery has become the miracle that has saved them – for now.

I remember the day in a Sydney newsroom almost 20 years ago when an editor at the paper where I worked at the time heard that I was writing a book about the Wollemi pines. Even though the trees’ discovery in 1994 made news on front pages around the world, my boss walked over to my desk, looked me in the eye and said “no one is going to read a fucking book about a tree”.

Implicit in what he said was that no one cared about Wollemi pines enough to read a book about them.

A former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Carrick Chambers, described the discovery of Wollemi pines as ‘the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur alive on Earth’. Photograph: AP

How wrong he was, was demonstrated this week as dramatic news emerged that the trees had been saved from the firestorm of the vast Gospers Mountain fire and people rejoiced.

To see the photos of the ribbon of green of the Wollemi pines, surrounded by the charred towering clifftops and ridgelines was a rare moment of joy and relief for a community that has watched so much destroyed during the past few months.

When I visited the canyon in 1997, I was taken in by helicopter wearing a blindfold and then abseiled into a deep and dark prehistoric environment that was absolutely soaked and waterlogged. At the time it seemed impossible that such a place would ever burn. Now it seems impossible that it didn’t.

The Wollemi pine has been a story that has captured people’s imaginations. It is a tale of high adventure and academic excellence. First, there was a dramatic canyoning exploration trip that led to its discovery, then scientific detective work to determine exactly what that 40-metre-tall tree found by Noble actually was, followed by the quest to understand how it survived unnoticed, so close to Sydney.

Perhaps the significance of the discovery was best captured by a quote given to me by the then director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Carrick Chambers, on the day the discovery was announced: “This is the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur alive on Earth.”

The Wollemi pines have a lineage dating back to the age of dinosaurs and were on the precipice of extinction before they were found. Photograph: AP

What Chambers was alluding to and that most people don’t realise is that Wollemi pines are time travellers from a different Australia, from a warmer and wetter planet. Their history stretches back more than 100 million years and they have survived natural climate change that has seen temperatures swing dramatically and sea levels rise and fall by hundreds of metres, multiple times.

The trees tell the story of almost unimaginably deep time. Once, instead of gum trees, Gondwana, of which Australia was a small part, was covered in immense forests of Wollemi pines and their very close relatives. These ancient trees deposited so much pollen that it is still found as fossils around the southern hemisphere, retrieved by geologists who find evidence of the trees in cores, from places like Bass Strait, that are kilometres thick.

Then, 10 million years ago, the trees begin to vanish from the fossil pollen record and two million years ago they disappeared altogether, indicating that the climate had shifted in a way that made their widespread survival untenable.

Since then as the planet shifted towards icier, colder, drier conditions any surviving populations of the trees would have slowly shrunk, become separated and forced to retreat into the last refuges of wet deep rainforest canyons. After people arrived in Australia and widespread burning was practiced, their fate was sealed to imprisonment in a single deep gorge.

Intensive water-bombing and the installation of emergency irrigation by firefighters has allowed the trees to survive. Photograph: HO/AFP via Getty Images

It is hard, after this week, to consider the remaining original Wollemi pines as wild. Only intensive water-bombing, the installation of emergency irrigation and the intervention of determined firefighting has allowed them to survive until the next threat. The trees are now dependent on us for their survival. And it’s not just our efforts to protect the canyon where they survive, it is also about the research that has seen millions of trees cultivated and sold commercially around the world. It is about the creation of back-up populations in other similar canyons in the greater Blue Mountains.

It is also about the ongoing effort to keep the location of the trees secret and protected from fungal pathogens.

The fact that out of this catastrophe, Wollemi pines have become a symbol of survival and all that is good about what we can do when we are determined to protect something, shows that all is not lost as man-made climate change tightens its grip.