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Scientists’ top-secret “dinosaur tree” experiment wins battle against extinction

Greta Stonehouse, June 25, 2018 7:00PM AP

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Wollemi pine. Picture: supplied media_cameraWollemi pine. Picture: supplied

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A top-secret Australian experiment to save an ancient species from the time of the dinosaurs has succeeded, scientists report.

The rare and critically* endangered Wollemi pine — often referred to as the “dinosaur tree” — is healthy and growing well in a secret location in NSW. Scientists planted the crop in 2012 to try to collect seed and protect the species from extinction.

Everyone believed Wollemi pines were extinct and only knew about the big, prickly, ancient tree from fossils from 200 million years ago. But in 1994 a small colony* of living trees was discovered in Wollemi National Park in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, NSW. There are thought to be only about 100 trees remaining in the wild in remote canyons* and some of these are thought to be up to 1000 years old.

Parts of the Blue Mountains is very difficult to get to. Here’s some drone video

The NSW government invested almost $200,000 to plant and protect the secret crop in case the recently discovered trees growing in the wild are destroyed by disease or natural disasters such as bushfire.

“The top-secret insurance* population is now naturally producing cones and seeds,” NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said on Monday.

Dr Cathy Offord and Wollemi pine trees in pots at Sydney Botanic Gardens in 1996, just two years after the trees were discovered. Picture: supplied media_cameraDr Cathy Offord and Wollemi pine trees in pots at Sydney Botanic Gardens in 1996, just two years after the trees were discovered. Picture: supplied

Dr Cathy Offord, Principal Research Scientist at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden, who’s been studying the pine since its discovery said the “insurance plantation” had exceeded* expectations*.

“Some 83 per cent of the insurance Wollemi pines are surviving and have increased in size by up to 37 per cent making them mature enough to produce potentially* viable* seed much earlier than expected,” Dr Offord said.

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A drawing of what we think a pterosaur looked like. Some pterosaurs and Wollemi pines were on earth at the same time 200 million years ago. Picture: istock media_cameraA drawing of what we think a pterosaur looked like. Some pterosaurs and Wollemi pines were on earth at the same time 200 million years ago. Picture: istock

NEED TO KNOW

  • Wollemi pines are not a true pine. The scientific name is Wollemi nobilis and they are a member of the Araucariaceae family. Related trees include Araucaria and Agathis.
  • Wollemi pines are evergreen trees that grow 25-40m tall. Their bark looks like Coco Pops breakfast cereal. You can now buy small Wollemi pines in nurseries and they are becoming popular as Christmas trees.
  • Fossils found of Wollemi pine are from 200 million years ago, when the breakup of Gondwana was happening. The world was warm and there were no polar ice caps.
  • Australia was covered in plants such as ferns, mosses, cycads and conifers and there were fish and amphibians.
  • Elsewhere in the world, long-tailed pterosaurs flew through the sky and theropods, sauropods and early stegosaurs roamed the earth.

For more information on the world 200 million years ago, visit australianmuseum.net.au

GLOSSARY

  • critically: at extreme risk of extinction
  • colony: a group of one species living together
  • canyons: a deep gorge
  • insurance: something put aside in case a bad thing happens
  • exceeded: better than
  • expectations: what was expected
  • potentially: possible in the future
  • viable: able to germinate, or begin to grow

LISTEN TO TODAY’S STORY

QUICK QUIZ

  1. When did scientists plant the secret crop? Why?
  2. How many trees were found in 1994 and where?
  3. What percentage of the “insurance crop” is surviving?
  4. Describe Wollemi pines. How tall do they grow?
  5. We have Wollemi pine fossils from 200 million years ago. What species were alive on Earth then?

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Top secret file
Create a “top secret tree file” about the Wollemi pine. Your file should include a cover that is appropriately marked so others know it is top secret and five documents and/or pictures inside that each contain a piece of information about the tree and the operation to keep it safe.

Extension: Find out what Gondwana was and what happened to it.

Time: Allow 30 minutes
Curriculum links: English, Science

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight all the openers you can find in blue. Discuss if they are powerful and varied openers or not. Why do you think the journalists has used a mix of simple and power openers? Would you change any, and why?

QUESTIONS: Why aren’t there many of these trees left in the wild? Explain your answers using full sentences. No one-word answers.

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