A good news story from the devastation caused by the bush fires – the only known native stand of the world-famous Wollemi Pines has been saved by firefighters. Queensland Museum Palaeobotanist Dr Andrew Rozefelds wishes to acknowledge the work done by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service and NSW Rural Fire Service for responding effectively to help save this unique plant community.
Read The Sydney Morning Herald story Incredible, secret firefighting mission saves famous ‘dinosaur trees’.
The discovery of Wollemia in 1994, just 200 kms from Sydney in the Blue Mountains was unprecedented and this discovery of a previously unknown genus of conifers was completely unexpected. The Wollemi Pines are restricted to narrow canyons in the Blue Mountains and occur in one remote area of the Wollemi National Park.
The landscape in the Blue Mountains is highly dissected with the fire prone areas on the tops of the cliffs and ridge lines. These areas are dominated by Eucalyptus and other plants that have evolved in response to fire and can survive less intense fires. The wet gorges and canyons are relatively fire free. Fire in these communities is rare and the plant communities are dominated by temperate rainforest species.
Air photos of the landscape highlight the contrast between the grey-green of Eucalyptus woodlands with the bright green foliage of the rainforest occurring in the gorges and these gorges are the home to the critically endangered Wollemi Pines. It is not by chance that these trees survived in these canyons – being fire sensitive it is the only place in this landscape where they can survive due to protective landscape of steep cliffs and the wetter conditions in the gorges.
Wollemia is most closely related to the Kauri Pines (Agathis) that occur in the rainforest of North eastern Queensland. The origins of the Wollemi Pines can be traced back to the time of the dinosaurs and from the fossil pollen record we can trace the history of the Wollemia-Agathis lineage back 90 million years. While the fossil record offers up some tantalising clues, few fossils of Wollemia have been confidently identified, although the insights from molecular studies would suggest that the Wollemi Pines would have evolved some 70 million years ago.
The fossil record does show us that as the Australian continent has moved northwards it has slowly dried out, the wetter forests have retreated to fire free, often upland areas and these refugia remain the last hold outs for many species of rainforest animals and plants. Under the drought conditions experienced in eastern Australia and Tasmania in recent years we have seen rainforests burn. This “New Normal” is not a continuation of gradual change we have seen in the past – the scale and intensity of the fires in SE Australia has changed, and are likely to continue to become more severe as predicted in the Garnaut Climate Change Review in 2007. The impacts of these changes have severely felt by communities in Australia and extend beyond the environment to all areas of the economy as we have seen recently.
These new conditions pose unprecedented threats to the animals and plants in all fire-sensitive communities in Australia. The protective vertical rampants that have in the past helped to protect the Wollemi Pines from fire may not be enough to protect this fragile community in the future. Without the intervention of the Parks and Rural Fires staff and volunteers this last population of this remarkable rainforest conifer, that is 70 million years in the making, may well have gone up in smoke. It is perhaps remarkable that it has survived so long.