Oak Tree Thought to Be Extinct Discovered in Texas National Park

Scientists describe the lone tree as being in “poor condition” and in “immediate need of conservation.”

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

Researchers are "thrilled" to have discovered an oak tree once thought to be extinct within Big Bend National Park in Texas.

A team led by The Morton Arboretum in Illinois and United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. found a lone Quercus tardifolia (Q. tardifolia) tree on May 25. Sadly, the 30-foot tree was described as being in "poor condition." With its trunk scarred by fire and showing signs of severe fungal infection, scientists deemed it in "immediate need of conservation."

Quercus tardifolia, also known as the Chisos Mountains oak or lateleaf oak, was first described in the 1930s. The last living specimen was believed to have died in 2011. According to Murphy Westwood, Ph.D., vice president of science and conservation at The Morton Arboretum, it is considered one of, if not the rarest oak in the world.

"This work is crucial to preserve the biodiversity that Earth is so quickly losing," Westwood said in a news release. "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."

The team is currently working with the National Park Service to reduce the immediate wildfire threat to the tree. Conservationists are also planning a return trip to search for acorns and to attempt propagation. Other methods of propagation, including grafting, are reportedly being pursued to preserve the oak's future.

"In many ways, this tree is an ancient relic. Due to the changing climate, the world is completely different now than when it evolved," Wesley Knapp, chief botanist at NatureServe, who participated in the expedition, said in a statement. "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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