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Extinction Watch: A living relic, sacred to a Chilean tribe


This conifer was around at the time of the dinosaurs and native to theslopesof the south-central Andes in Chile andArgentina.

It’s possible the tree gained the name of monkey puzzle because of its spiny, scale-like leaves which would leave a monkey puzzled. The tree is home to the slender-billed parakeet and over 70 types of insects that live nowhere else on earth, but no monkeys!

The araucaria is virtually a living relic, surviving nearly unchanged for more than 200 million years, and possibly the Earth’s oldest living tree species. The Pehuenche people of Chile consider this tree to be sacred, paying tribute to it as a source of food and spiritual wisdom. The seeds are edible, the resin is used as medicine, and the wood can be used for building material.

It can live for 1,000 years and grows to 50m high with a trunk diameter of over 3m.

Its large seeds, pinones, take two years to mature. It grows on the slopes of rocky volcanoes and its bark is fire resistant, so ‘islands’ of trees can even survive lava flows!

The tree was first used to make railway sleepers for access to the coal fields, steel works, paper mills and ceramics industries that built up around Concepción, the port at the industrial heart of Chile. Later the timber was used for general carpentry, skis, piano interiors, oars, rulers and even aeroplanes. In the UK, the monkey puzzle became an archetypal Victorian park tree.

In 2013, the species was upgraded to Endangered on theIUCNRed List of Threatened Species because the species populations are small and fragmented, meaning populations are vulnerable.
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