Wooden personalities: how I learned that trees are remarkable and worth saving

Posted on by Marta Calix

Trees. Until a couple of months ago, I thought trees played three main roles in the field of conservation biology. First, trees are components of animal habitat, and provide food and shelter for other creatures. Second, trees act as carbon sinks, unwitting and often underappreciated heroes in the fight against climate change. And third, a variety of tree species ensures genetic diversity and ecosystem resilience – and that was pretty much it.

When I got the chance to do an internship at Fauna & Flora International with the Global Trees Campaign, building a quiz to raise awareness of the need for tree conservation by matching people with threatened tree species, as their “treemate”, the project struck me as rather challenging. If I didn’t find individual tree species interesting, how would I get others to be interested?

A tree that would 'puzzle a monkey', the famous monkey puzzle tree. Credit; Peter Hollingsworth/RBGE

The tree that would ‘puzzle a monkey’, the famous monkey puzzle tree. Credit; Peter Hollingsworth/RBGE

Look more closely and you shall find…

There is something about biology as a whole that I have come to realise: the more you know about something, the more interesting you find it. Maybe it is the same way with everything, but it is definitely so with living creatures. When I started my undergraduate degree in biology, I was crazy about cuddly mammals and had an incipient interest in birds. Five years later, I am crazy about birds, and find herps, invertebrates and fungi fascinating.

At first, a thing is just a thing, and you know nothing about it, not even its name. Take bats for instance – this is not the perfect example; they are mammals after all, but bear with me for a moment. At first, a bat is just a tiny weird creature that you see for a fleeting moment at dusk and then quickly disappears.

However, as soon as you start learning a little about them, you find out that they hunt by using echolocation. Then, you find out their knees are in the back of their legs, instead of the front. You start looking into things, and you find out some insects are able to detect bat’s echolocation waves and have an in-built response to drop to the ground to avoid being eaten and that there is a species of bat that actually preys on fish. Fish! Maybe you come across the fact that fish are actually seed dispersers in seasonally flooded tropical forests, and that they swim between the canopy branches of submerged trees.

And if you look into trees…

The striking red flowers of the devil's hand tree. Credit; N.-Ramírez-Marcial.

The striking red flowers of the devil’s hand tree. Credit; N. Ramírez-Marcial.

Every tree is different

Since I’ve started developing this quiz, I have found myself googling not only tree species (as would be expected), but a wide range of apparently random subjects such as mummifications, Stradivarius violins, benign prostatic hyperplasia, soil fungi and Chinese coffins – to name just a few.

What I found is that, on closer inspection, trees cease to be an amorphous mass of carbon-sinking animal habitat to become individual species with interesting evolutionary histories, quirky adaptations and unique characteristics, just like bats or any of the cuddlier mammals.

Some trees can live for thousands of years or grow higher than cathedrals, like the redwoods. Some can change sex several times during their lifetime, like the Bornean ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri). Some have weirdly shaped flowers, like the devil’s hand tree (Chiranthodendron pentadactylon) or swollen trunks like the baobabs (Adansonia spp.), or candelabra-like canopies like the paraná pine (Araucaria angustifolia). Their leaves might be half a meter long as in the originally-named big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), or tiny pine needles. Trees are diverse, beautiful and extraordinary.

Interwoven lives

Regardless of how extraordinary, no man is an island – nor is any tree. Trees lives are interwoven with those of dozens of different creatures, from soil bacteria, fungi, arthropods, birds, mammals and even fish. Those stories could fill several books. When you add humans to this already crowded party, the stories get even more fantastic. The Canary Islands dragon tree (Dracaena draco), for example, has sap that was used by local people to mummify bodies. The argoun palm (Medemia argun) used to be placed in pharaoh’s tombs in ancient Egypt as an offering for the after-life, and the Dayak people from Borneo believe that the Bornean ironwood protects them from dangerous animals such as tigers and elephants.

The Canary Island dragon tree Credit: BGCI

The unusual Canary Island dragon tree Credit: BGCI

Just like tigers and elephants, trees are also threatened by a variety of human activities. They are cut down for their wood, or for making space for agriculture or urban development. Things can get pretty serious – for instance, there are only four mature individuals of Hawaiian cotton tree (Kokia drynarioides) left in Hawaii, and only one mature individual of the bastard gumwood (Commidendrum rotundifoliumon the tiny island of St. Helena. Trees can become so rare that their genetic diversity plummets and they start having trouble reproducing. They can also struggle with climate change, and finally, they risk going extinct if nothing is done to protect them from these threats.

Take the plunge – find your treemate

I have learned a great deal in the couple of months that I have spent researching these trees and I now find the prospect of going to a botanic garden thoroughly thrilling. They might have a Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis), the plant equivalent of stumbling upon a velociraptor in a forest, or a Vietnamese golden cypress (Xanthocyparis vietnamensis), a species only discovered in 1999… or maybe something else I never even knew existed!

The swollen trunk of the 'upside down tree' otherwise known as  Grandidier's baobab. Credit; Daudet Andriafidison

The swollen trunk of the ‘upside down tree’ otherwise known as Grandidier’s baobab. Credit; Daudet Andriafidison

If you would like to learn more about trees and tree conservation, the Global Trees Campaign website is a brilliant place to start with individual tree profiles highlighting the species characteristics, the threats they are facing and the conservation actions which are in place (or not yet) to protect them. Another great resouce is a book called “The Secret Lives of Trees” by Colin Tudge which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys well written accounts of interesting species and a gift for explaining complex subjects in a delightful manner.

Time to take the Treevotion quiz, and find out which threatened tree species is your greener-half! What´s mine? The argoun palm, which is only found in oases in southern Egypt and northern Sudan and shelters the local wildlife from the blazing desert sun.

So give trees a chance, I guarantee they will surprise you!


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