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‘Extinct’ Tree Is Still Alive in a Texas Park—but Barely

A living but struggling Quercus tardifolia was discovered in late May in Big Bend National Park.

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Research group stands by Quercus tardifolia.
Research group stands by Quercus tardifolia.
Photo: U.S Botanic Garden

Standing at 30 feet tall, with a trunk scarred by fire and a severe fungal infection, is the Chisos Mountains oak, or Quercus tardifolia, a species thought to be extinct. The tree is likely one fire or drought away from death. Researchers are now keen to protect this lonely survivor.

The oak tree, presumed extinct by 2011, was found within Big Bend National Park, an 880,000-acre park in Texas. A team of researchers from more than 10 groups, led by the Morton Arboretum and United States Botanic Garden, made the discovery on May 25. They immediately collaborated with the National Park Service to reduce any immediate threats to the tree, the biggest concern being wildfire.

Murphy Westwood, vice president of science and conservation at the Morton Arboretum, said in a statement that oak trees are ecologically important because of their ability to clean air, filter water, sequester carbon dioxide, and support various species of animals.

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Quercus tardifolia leaves
Quercus tardifolia leaves
Photo: Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories and Arboretum

Oak trees have the tendency to crossbreed, allowing them to different climate conditions. However, the frequent crossbreeding can blur genetic lines between oak trees in large area like Big Bend. So it is important that researchers also confirm the DNA of the tree matches previous Q. tardifolia samples. And if it is confirmed, then the next steps are even more critical.

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“We’ve been given that second chance, and we just can’t blow it,” Michael Eason, a conservation officer for San Antonio Botanical Gardens, said to the New Republic. “It’s not one we’re going to waste.”

Researchers have returned to the tree’s location to look for acorns or small sprouts, from which they could attempt to grow new trees. But oak tree acorns cannot be traditionally seed banked, because the acorn has to be preserved in the wild or in its living condition, according to the Morton Arboretum. And anyway, the tree does not appear to be producing acorns—another sign of its fragile health.

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This isn’t the only recent rediscovery of a supposedly extinct species. A Fernandina Island tortoise was found alive in 2019, the first sighting of her species in a century.