By Brian Kahn
TORREYA STATE PARK, FLORIDA—Religious scholars have long debated where Noah constructed his floating zoo made of “gopher wood” (Genesis 6:14) and what tree the ark’s gopher wood even came from. Some residents in the Florida Panhandle have an unlikely answer. The place in question is, well, there, and the tree in question is torreya taxifolia. Known locally as gopher wood (or, less Biblically, as stinking cedar for the astringent smell it releases when needles and stems are rolled between the fingers), local legend has it that the tree with its supple yellow wood was used to build the ark that Noah rode out 40 days of floods on, with the menagerie landing, eventually, on Mount Ararat in Turkey.
Now, thousands of years later, the tree faces a new era of ecological violence.
“If we don’t do anything, the trees will go extinct.”
Torreyas have been trapped by geography for millennia, only living in a few ravines that cut across the Apalachicola River Basin. That’s left them vulnerable to the outside disturbances that have come crashing into the Florida Panhandle and now threaten their very survival. Globalization delivered a fungus the tree had no defense against that has been slowly strangling torreyas to death for decades. Then last October, Hurricane Michael rapidly spun up into a Category 4 storm, plowing through Panama City and into the Panhandle. Its path was like a catastrophically precise ecological bomb with the strongest winds passing right over the Apalachicola Basin. The storm toppled canopy trees that either crushed the shaggy torreyas or exposed them to harsh sunlight, which can kill them. The already critically endangered tree is now on life support with just a few hundred individuals left in the wild.
Conservationists are in a race to save the trees that remain. Local volunteers and scientists from the Atlanta Botanical Garden are using a mix of mapping, genome sequencing, and conservation techniques to find trees hearty enough to survive in a world that’s become less hospitable since Biblical times. If successful, their efforts could yield a model for how to protect forests around the world from increasingly formidable threats of climate change and invasive pests.
By Janet Marinelli
Edward O. Wilson clambered partway down a slope in the Florida Panhandle, aided by a park ranger and trailed by a few dozen scientists, conservationists, and local landowners. The group had gathered in Torreya State Park, a landscape of dazzling botanical diversity along the upper Apalachicola River, as part of a whirlwind two-day meeting early this month to ponder the fate of its most storied tree. As the wind gusted through leafless branches, the lanky, white-haired Wilson, at 88 years of age still one of the most brilliant biologists of his generation, planted a seedling of the Florida torreya, North America’s most endangered conifer.
Wilson first visited the Apalachicola bluffs in 1957, as a self-described “young guy” with a new position at Harvard University, on an ant-collecting trip in Florida. “I came here,” he recounted, “the way you would go to Paris to visit a cathedral. I just had to see the torreya.” The trees had already begun their steep decline.
More than 60 years later Wilson was back. This time he declared the site “is not only a cathedral, but also a battleground at which one of the greatest events in American history will take place” — a turning point, as he sees it, in the planetary struggle to slow biodiversity loss.
Last spring, another “young guy” was at Torreya State Park on a camping trip with his lab. University of Florida forest pathologist Jason Smith “couldn’t believe how much worse the torreyas were” than when he had seen them the year before. “The population was crashing.” Smith, who has reddish brown hair and a bundle of energy, decided to assemble a team to reflect on the meaning of the species’ imminent demise, to catalog the “torreya tree of life” — all living things with which it associates in the wild — and to plan a last-ditch effort to save it.
“This is a now or never moment for the species,” he says.
While the massive wildfires and tree die-offs out West have gotten most of the press in recent years, the Eastern forests are also in crisis. An increasing number of the region’s iconic native trees are plagued by pests and pathogens introduced from abroad. This has researchers scrambling to find genes that can help impart resistance, and to breed them into the ailing trees. Because classical crossbreeding takes decades — perhaps too long for a critically endangered species like the torreya — options once unimaginable as conservation measures are now being considered, including the new group of gene-editing technologies called CRISPR that has taken the biotech world by storm.
The growing forest health crisis is forcing scientists, conservationists, and the public to answer some of conservation biology’s thorniest questions. Will we be able to use biotechnologies on the frontier of plant science to rescue imperiled species? Should we? And when so many species are at risk, does it make sense to go to extraordinary lengths to save a tree like the Florida torreya that has a tiny historical range and no commercial value?