Today in the journal Science, renowned biologist and writer Edward O. Wilson reflects on his experiences in the Florida panhandle, and answers some questions about the critically endangered Florida torreya tree.
E. O. Wilson wants to save rare Florida tree
Government officials, conservationists, and researchers—including renowned Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson—will gather next week in Bristol, Florida, to discuss the fate of the Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia). Also known as stinking cedar, it is considered by many to be the most endangered tree species in the world. A deadly fungus has killed all but about 1000 trees, most of which grow along a 56-kilometer stretch of Florida’s Apalachicola River, and the pathogen has already infected the remaining trees. Science caught up with Wilson, who has been called “the father of biodiversity,” on the eve of his trip to the meeting.
Q:When did you first find out the Florida torreya was in trouble?
A:In July 1957. I was collecting ants up and down the Florida peninsula and panhandle. At Torreya State Park, we got a lot of good stuff. But we noticed that this marvelous endemic [tree] from the ice age was wilted. So, this is how it began, and now it’s on its last legs.
Q:What makes this tree and region special to you?
A:It’s where I come from, where I spent my boyhood. Not exactly there, but an area like that. I go to somewhere on the Gulf Coast several times a year, as I’ve been active in doing research to propose a new national park in the Mobile-Tensaw River delta [in Alabama] and to promote the setting up of a biodiversity corridor [that] would stretch from somewhere around Tallahassee and along the Gulf Coast as far as Louisiana. The Apalachicola River might be part of that.
Q:Can this tree be saved?
A:There is an out. The torreya has become a reasonably popular ornamental, and it’s being widely distributed. And in the return of the American chestnut, where there seemed to be no hope after it went completely extinct—therein lies the story of what could happen to the torreya. I’d like to see the torreya become a symbol and an issue that people are interested in.