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9 Apr 2009

The Discovery of the Wollemi Pine

The Wollemi pine was a critically endangered species when it was discovered by Dave Noble in 1994, and its exact location in the Wollemi National Park remains a closely guarded secret. The botanist Carrick Chambers stated that the discovery was: ‘the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur alive on earth’. The Wollemi pine evolved around 140 million years ago, when Australia was part of a super continent called Gondwana, which linked Australia, New Guinea and Antarctica. The arrival of the Wollemi pine coincided with the first flowering plants, and the extinction of the dinosaurs.

 

Within the Wollemi National Park are as many as 500 water carved gorges and cracks which provided refuge for ancient species including the Wollemi pine for over two million years.

 

These gorges have served to protect ancient ecosystems. Typically they house small pockets of remnant rainforest, which have retreated against the advance of the eucalypts. The reason these gorges contain ancient treasures is because they have been protected from fire and extreme exposure to the elements. It was in one of these gorges that two groves of Wollemi pines remained. The family to which they belong – the araucariaceae or monkey-puzzles – is so ancient that their ancestors were around while dinosaurs still roamed the earth. The Wollemi Pine evolved around 140 million years ago, when Australia was part of a super continent called Gondwana, which linked Australia, New Guinea and Antarctica.

To find this untapped treasure required an expert understanding of the wilderness as well as the agility to move through its challenging landscape. Dave Noble has both.

Noble and his experienced companions are able, due to their capabilities as canyonists, to reach places most others would find inaccessible. Consequently he has been able to discover many wilderness areas not formally known to man.

Dave Noble estimates he has visited 375 of Wollemi’s 500 canyons, and he has named 200 places that he has been the first to visit. In June 1994, Noble and four of his companions explored a canyon they had never previously visited. They entered a gorge which was home to remnant rainforest of coachwood and sassafras. As the day came to a close, they dropped down a rock, where they saw ferns and orchids. They passed over a waterfall, surveying the previously unexplored gorge. Three months later, on September 10, 1994, Dave Noble returned to the canyon.

This time Noble and his companions tackled the gorge from the opposite direction. In order to reach their goal they swam through near freezing pools and abseiled, ascending and descending canyons. Noble kept up his pace as he approached what should have been a familiar site. However he came to an abrupt stop when he saw a remarkable and strange site. Instead of a gorge populated by remnant coachwood and sassafras rainforest were strange trees that he did not recognise. They were tall and covered in a bark with a strange bubbly appearance that reminded Noble of the breakfast cereal Coco-Pops. As he looked at the foliage that had fallen to the ground, Noble realised he had seen nothing like it. He took a small sample and put it in his bag to carry home.

Noble took the sample to Wyn Jones, a naturalist who had been identifying plants for over 25 years. Wyn recognised that this plant came from a time that pre-dated flowering plants, when algae, ferns, cycads and conifers dominated the landscape.

Noble returned to the canyon with Jones in October 1994. Jones sensed he was standing in front of something new. He grabbed photos and videos as a record and walked around looking for sexually active material. He took cones, leaves and samples the Coco-Pops bark. He wanted to get a sample of female cones, and realised that to do so he would need to find a way to reach the top of the trees. Jones and his team returned to the canyon later in a helicopter to retrieve the female cone, which was crucial to identifying its place in a genus.


The female seed cone had the appearance of an araucaria, such as a Bunya pine, but internally it was more like the New Zealand Kauri pine, agathis. Ken Hill, of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, knew when he opened the up the female cone that they were looking at a new genus. It was from the araucariaceae family, but it belonged to neither the agathis nor the araucaria genus. The new genus became known as Wollemia nobilis, after the Wollemi wilderness and Dave Noble, who discovered it.

The first Wollmei pines appeared in the Cretaceous period. Their arrival coincided with the first flowering plants, and the extinction of the dinosaurs.The Wollemi pine had been discovered before in its fossilised form by the botanist Carrick Chambers. Chambers had found records of araucariaceae vegetation new to science among 120 million year old fossils in Victoria. They were later to find out that these fossils were an exact match with the Wollemi pine. Chambers believed the discovery of the Wollemi pine to be very significant. In his words it was: ‘the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur alive on earth’.

The Wollemi pine was a critically endangered species when it was discovered by Dave Noble in 1994. There were only 23 adults in the small grove. While they have been successfully cultivated and are widely distributed in nurseries around the world, every effort has been made to protect them in the wild. The location of the Wollemi pine is one of the most closely guarded secrets of botanical history. People cannot visit the gorge that is home to the Wollemi pine. However they can visit many other ancient treasures which have been protected for tens of millions of years in these gorges, such as the remnant rainforest patches of coachwood and sassafras, a reminder of the forests that dominated continental Australia before the Ice Age.

 

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