By Danny Hapin via SWNS
A type of oak tree thought to have become extinct in 2011 has just been rediscovered in Texas, scientists have announced.
The tree is clinging on despite being scarred by fire and having a fungal infection and has immediately been put under conservation.
Scientists say climate change is making it more likely that drought and fire will kill it off and they are scrambling to find acorns with which to grow more.
Officially called Quercus tardifolia (Q tardifolia), the species was first described in the 1930s and the trees are about 30 feet tall.
Researchers led by The Morton Arboretum and United States Botanic Garden (USBG) say the oak is in poor condition and in immediate need of conservation.
They are also working with the National Park Service to protect it from wildfires and believe that studying the tree will help them protect other organisms from the same fate.
Dr. Susan Pell, executive director at the USBG, said: “The USBG is thrilled about the success of this partnership and collecting trip that rediscovered such a rare oak.
“The discovery is just the beginning of the conservation work we are doing in partnership with The Morton Arboretum to better understand and conserve threatened trees.”
Dr. Murphy Westwood, vice president of science and conservation at The Morton Arboretum, said: “This work is crucial to preserve the biodiversity that Earth is so quickly losing."
“If we ignore the decline of Q tardifolia and other rare, endangered trees, we could see countless domino effects with the loss of other living entities in the ecosystems supported by those trees.”
Dr. Westwood added that this tree, found on May 25 in Big Bend National Park, is considered to be one of, if not the rarest oaks in the world.
Carloyn Whiting, a botanist at the park, said: “This is important, collaborative research necessary for the conservation of Q tardifolia.
“The Chisos Mountains support a high diversity of oak species, partly because of the wide range of habitats available in this sky island. There is still much to learn about the oaks in the Chisos.”
While some scientists work on the immediate protection of the tree, others are working to classify it genetically to find out if it is in fact a different species than other oaks in the area.
This can be difficult as oaks tend to crossbreed or hybridize, which allows them to adapt faster to changing climate conditions like extreme heat or new diseases, but it also blurs the genetic lines between species.
Dr. Andrew Hipp of The Morton Arboretum, whose team is carrying out the genetic analysis, said: “This is an interesting problem.
“We’re looking into whether this tree is genetically similar to other trees that have been previously collected as Q tardifolia.
“That should tell us whether this collection of specimens is genetically distinct enough from other closely related oaks in the area to warrant recognition as a species.”
Dr. Hipp said it is important to preserve not just individual species but the whole genetic variation of life.
He added: “Species are genetically distinct populations that we can generally recognize in the field. But they aren’t the be-all and end-all of conservation.
“We also aim to protect the functional variation within species. Leaf forms, physiological responses to drought and fire and even tree longevity are all attributes that can be shared among populations and among species by gene flow.
“The functional variation that these new collections represent may be just what is needed to help oaks of the region adapt to environmental changes in the near or distant future.”
Oak acorns cannot be traditionally seed banked like other trees. They need to be preserved in the wild or in living collections, which is why the involvement of botanical gardens is so important to the project.
The researchers who found this oak are worried that it is not producing any acorns so they are trying other methods of reproducing the tree, such as grafting, which is done by taking a twig from the current tree and sticking it into the trunk of another.
Dr. Westwood said: “Across the planet, oaks serve as an ecological anchor cleaning the air, filtering water, sequestering carbon dioxide and supporting countless fungi, insects, birds and mammals.
“When one is lost, we don’t know what else we might permanently lose in its wake.”
She added that conservation efforts like this need collaborative initiatives, such as the Global Conservation Consortium for Oak, and the involvement of botanical gardens and a variety of scientific experts.
Dr. Wesley Knapp, the chief botanist at NatureServe, said: “In many ways, this tree is an ancient relic. Due to the changing climate, the world is completely different now than when it evolved.
“It is incumbent upon us to learn from it and protect it while we still can in order to inform future conservation efforts.
“Nature rarely hands us a second chance and I doubt we’ll get a third. We won’t waste it.”
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