Researchers discover oak tree at Texas park, previously thought to be extinct

First described in the 1930s, the last living Q. tardifolia tree was believed to have perished in 2011

Oaks are exceptional among tree species in that their acorns cannot be traditionally seed banked for conservation purposes. Here a researcher studies the leaves on the tree. (Morton Arboretum)

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas – Botanical researchers have discovered an oak tree that was previously thought to be extinct.

The discovery was made at Big Bend National Park on May 25 by researchers who represent a coalition of more than 10 institutions.

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“It is not every day that one finds a presumed extinct species, we’ve been given a second chance to conserve this species, this plant. It is an opportunity we will not waste,” head of the Rare Plant and Conservation Department at San Antonio Botanical Garden Micheal Eason told KSAT.

The singular Quercus tardifolia tree stands about 30 feet tall and is in poor condition, according to a press release from the Morton Arboretum.

First described in the 1930s, the last living Q. tardifolia tree was believed to have perished in 2011.

“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,” said vice president of science and conservation at the Morton Arboretum Murphy Westwood.

Scientists are hoping that by studying why this particular tree is going extinct, they might be able to protect other organisms from suffering the same fate.

“With limited resources in plant conservation, and fewer and fewer experienced field botanists, its essential we fund additional surveys to locate rare and uncommon plants here in Texas and beyond. Many parts of our state are severely under-studied, when it comes to our flora - Who knows what else is out there yet to be found, and who knows what we have already lost,” Eason said.

The trunk of the tree the researchers discovered is scarred by fire and shows signs of severe fungal infection, which is calling into question whether or not it can be saved.

The group that found the tree is now working with the National Park Service to reduce the immediate wildfire threat to the tree.

Members of the May 2022 expedition that first located the lone Q. tardifolia tree included Adam Black of Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories and Arboretum, Michael Eason of San Antonio Botanical Garden, Emily Griswold of UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, Wesley Knapp of NatureServe, John Saltiel of USBG, Phillip Schulze of Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Elizabeth Thomas of Polly Hill Arboretum, Kelsey Wogan of Sul Ross State University A. Michael Powell Herbarium and Zarah Wyly, an independent oak researcher in California. (Morton Arboretum)

Conservationists in the group are also trying to locate acorns in an attempt to propagate the tree and breed more specimens from a parent plant.

“This work is crucial to preserve the biodiversity that Earth is so quickly losing,” said Westwood.

Acting executive director at the United States Botanic Garden, Susan Pell said the USBC is “thrilled about the success of this partnership and collecting trip that rediscovered such a rare oak.”

Collaborators in the coalition that made the discovery include the Morton Arboretum, United States Botanic Garden, Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories and Arboretum; Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; NatureServe; Polly Hill Arboretum; San Antonio Botanical Garden; University of California, Davis Arboretum and Public Garden; and The Sul Ross State University A. Michael Powell Herbarium.

“Across the planet, oaks serve as an ecological anchor cleaning air, filtering water, sequestering carbon dioxide and supporting countless fungi, insects, birds and mammals,” Westwood said. “When one is lost, we don’t know what else we might permanently lose in its wake.”

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