Endangered Trees Able to Outsmart Hungry Squirrels

Photo via the Edmonton Journal

Old dogs may have a hard time learning new tricks -- but it doesn't seem to be a problem for a group of endangered trees from Canada, some of which are around 1,500 years old. In 2009, so many of Alberta's mountainous five-needle pines were killed by beetles and fungi that they became listed as endangered, in desperate need of repopulation to preserve the species, but seed-hungry squirrels threatened to dim their chances. Local scientists were pleased to discover, however, that the old trees seemed to have a plan to outwit them.The five-needle pines typically produce around 25 cones a year, filled with seeds that are apparently irresistible to local wildlife. Bears and squirrels are known to feast on the seeds, fattening up for the winter famine. Meanwhile, the tree relies upon a single bird species, the Clark's Nutcracker, to collect what's left and bury it in the surrounding hillsides. And, when the birds inevitably forget where they put a few of them, new pines have a chance to sprout.

Unfortunately for the pines, in dire need of a baby-boom after the tree-killing plagues, those squirrels and bears usually leave too few seeds behind for the Nutcrackers to do their part in the tree's reproduction process.

But just as scientists began to fear the worst for the endangered trees, something incredible happened. In 2010, instead of producing their typical batch of two dozen cones, the trees seemed to be doubling their efforts.

For biologist Vern Peters, from The King's University College, the 'pine cone bonanza' offered insight into just how evolved the old trees actually are. A report from the Edmonton Journal explains:

For some unknown reason, [in 2010] nearly every tree had three times as many cones and some had up to 300. As scientists expected, but hadn't earlier been able to prove, the pines outwit the squirrels by saving their energy and producing most of their seeds all at once.

The squirrels simply can't eat enough, said Peters, who has been monitoring 17 stands of limber pine for several years with help from undergraduate students.

To do their part, conservationists have been working tirelessly to improve the odds for the endangered trees. Studies, like the one undertaken by Peters, are hoping to result in a tree recovery plan for the provincial sustainable resource department. Other operations are working to uproot thriving plants to make a bit more room for the pines to grow.

In the end, however, it may be the tree's 'evolutionary quirk' and its symbiotic relationship the Clark's Nutcracker that ensure the pine's recovery.

"It's just an incredible story of life supporting other life," Peters told the Journal. "Here's this bird that does all of this for us. You lose one component and there's a cascade of effects. The bird that plants the seed, produces the tree, that makes the cone, that lets the bear live through the winter."

Centuries of study continuously prove nature's uncanny ability to overcome difficulties and defy expectations -- and we never seem to cease marveling at its aptitude for survival.

But of course, you don't get to live to be 1,500 years old without picking up a few tricks along the way.

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Tags: Biology | Canada | Endangered Species

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