December 27: Which are the oldest living trees in the world? You might think it’s those huge redwood trees, called giant sequoias, dating 4000 years. Not true. How about the Wollemi Pine? Yes, you’re getting there. But the answer is the Nightcap Oak, which was discovered recently. This oldest tree is 90 million years old.

The Nightcap Oak has been identified as a living fossil. It dates back to millions of years and was thought to have died out. But, at least one Nightcap Oak tree is alive. And, wonder of wonders, it has not undergone any basic changes in the body over the centuries, writes a Reuters report in The Asian Age.

The Fossil Tree
The Fossil Tree [Illustration by Shinod A.P.]

This tree was discovered in the Nightcap Range rainforest near Byron Bay, 650 km from Sydney. It was identified after a stand of about 20 mature trees was discovered by a scientist, Robert Kooyman, a few months ago.

And what does this remarkable tree look like? Nothing extraordinary. It’s a rainforest tree with dark green leaves, small nuts and small white flowers in dense clumps, smelling faintly of sweet aniseed.

The tree’s history spans more than 90 million years. Australia was then part of the Gondwanaland super-continent, linked to present day Antarctica, New Zealand and South America – and India.

Scientists are amazed that such a unique tree should have remained unnoticed until. The Nightcap Range rainforest is a favourite location for botanists engaged in solving the ancient mysteries of the planet.

The tree belongs to the Proteaceae family, of which native Australian banksias, waratahs, macadamias and grevilleas and South Africa’s proteas, are members.

The exact location of the Nightcap tree, in the state of New South Wales, is being kept a closely guarded secret by the scientists so that it can be protected. Moreover, the New South Wales State Government, has stated that it is considering a request to grant the tree emergency protection under the state’s legislation covering threatened species.

Cuttings from the trees have been taken and they are being cultivated at Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens.

This is not the first time that Australia is in the news for a similar discovery. In 1994, the first “living fossil”, the Wollemi Pine, also dating millions of years, was discovered here.

The Wollemi Pine is a conifer (‘pine’), whose nearest living relatives are native pines of Australia and New Zealand: Hoop Pine, Bunya Pine, and Norfolk Island Pine. However it has very different features from any known living pine. Its closest relatives are probably the extinct pines, which were a dominant feature of the Australian landscape during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods – between 200 and 65 million years ago. We know these pines only from fossils. So they too are ‘living’ fossils.

One reason why the country abounds in dense forests and some unusual wildlife is because large parts still lie untouched by human habitation. Dr Peter Weston of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, the leader of the expedition that made the discovery, said it was likely that there were other species of fauna waiting to be discovered in the great Australian outback.

“That something that big can escape detection until now, what small, interesting plants are there that we know nothing about?”, he asked.

What, indeed?