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Ancient Wollemi Pines Resurgent

Ten years after its discovery, a vanishingly rare tree from the Cretaceous Period is a scientific darling and may soon become a commercial success too

Stephen McLoughlin, Vivi Vajda

Figure 10. A complex community of microorganisms...Click to Enlarge Image

In 1994, while clambering through the steep-walled sandstone canyons of Wollemi National Park near Sydney, Australia, a park employee spotted a stand of large, peculiar trees. He didn't recognize the species and neither did a botanist friend—a reasonable failure given that the plant was believed to have gone extinct two million years ago. Thus was the wollemi pine rediscovered. The authors summarize the tree's ecology and paleobotanical significance, reflecting on the remarkable features of this vanishingly rare holdover from the age of the dinosaurs. From its presence in Cretaceous-Period fossils, to its onetime home in Antarctica, to its hidden life in a moist pocket of dry Australia, the natural history of the wollemi pine is remarkable. Its future promises to be noteworthy as well—cooperative fungi that live among the tree's roots synthesize the precious anti-cancer compound taxol, and soon the plant will be marketed as an ornamental.

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