Botanical researchers representing a coalition of more than 10 institutions have rediscovered an extinct oak tree, now in immediate need of conservation, in Big Bend National Park in Texas, USA.

Researchers led by The Morton Arboretum and the United States Botanic Garden (USBG) were delighted to find a lone tree Quercus tardifolia about 10 meters high, although it is in poor condition. First described in the 1930s, the last living specimen was thought to have died in 2011.

“This work is crucial to preserving the biodiversity that Earth is losing so quickly,” said Dr Murphy Westwood, of the Morton Arboretum.

“If we ignore the decline Q. tardifolia and other rare, endangered trees, we could see countless domino effects, such as the loss of other living entities in the ecosystems supported by those trees,” she said. According to Westwood, Q. tardifolia it is considered one of, if not the rarest oak in the world, he notes EurekAlert.

It is not known whether this missing oak can be saved

Scientists anticipate that by studying this extinct oak, they may be able to protect other organisms from the same fate. Unfortunately, it is currently unknown if this specimen of Q. tardifolia can be saved.

The team that made the discovery on May 25, 2022, described a gruesome scene. The trunk has fire marks and shows signs of severe fungal infection.

A drought or wildfire has the potential to end their lives, say scientists who also report that climate change is making that outcome more likely every year.

The group is now working with the National Park Service to reduce the immediate fire threat to the tree, and conservationists in that collaboration are looking to return as quickly as possible to search for acorns and try to start the process of reproducing specimens from a mother plant.

“This is important, collaborative research needed for conservation Q. tardifolia. The Chisos Mountains support a great diversity of oak species, partly due to the wide range of habitats available in this ‘heavenly island’. There is much more to learn about Chisos oaks,” said Carolyn Whiting, Big Bend National Park botanist.

Molecular analysis

Oaks tend to hybridize, or interbreed, which can allow them to adapt more quickly to changing climate conditions, such as extreme heat and new diseases. This frequent hybridization can also blur the genetic lines between oak species in a given ecosystem, such as the Big Bend.

Molecular analysis will confirm whether the newly discovered tree’s DNA matches that of previous samples of Q. tardifoliabut according to the researchers, there is a chance that the analysis will provide more questions than answers.

“This is an interesting problem. We want to find out if this tree is genetically similar to other trees that have previously been collected straight Q. tardifolia. That should tell us if this specimen is similar to what Cornelius H. Muller named Q. tardifoliasays Dr. Andrew Hipp of the Morton Arboretum.

“It should also 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,” he continued.

An extinct oak that could help preserve life in general

Regardless of classification, Hipp noted that it is important to preserve more than individual species, but rather all of life’s genetic variation.

“Species are genetically distinct populations that we can generally recognize in the field. But they are not the be-all and end-all of conservation. We also aim to protect functional variation within species,” says Dr Hipp.

“Leaf shapes, physiological responses to drought and fire, and even tree longevity are all attributes that can be shared between populations and species through gene flow. The functional variation these new specimens represent may be just what is needed to help oaks in the region adapt to environmental changes in the near or distant future,” the researcher continued.

“Nature does not give a third chance”

Oaks are exceptional among tree species in that their acorns cannot traditionally be stored for conservation purposes. According to the researchers, they need to be preserved in the wild or in living collections, which is why the involvement of botanic gardens is critical.

The researchers who discovered the extinct oak Q. tardifolia they are concerned that it does not produce acorns. Other methods of propagation, including grafting, are being pursued to preserve the future of the tree.

“In many ways this tree is an ancient relic. Because of climate change, the world is completely different now than it was when the oak evolved,” said Wesley Knapp, chief botanist at NatureServe, who participated in the expedition.

“It is our duty to learn from it and protect it as much as we can to help future conservation efforts. Nature rarely gives us a second chance and I doubt we will get a third. We will not waste it,” he said.

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