Monkey puzzle tree survived dinosaurs but is now endangered

The new docuseries “Patagonia: living on the edge of the worldexplores one of the wildest places on Earth. The six-part series is available on CNNgo. You can also access CNNgo through our CNN app.


The ancient monkey puzzle tree has distinctive spiny leaves and intricate scaly branches. Its unusual features, scientists believe, evolved as a defense against towering long-necked dinosaurs.

The evergreen plant can grow up to 48.8 meters tall and live for a millennium. tree is a survivor from the Jurassic era, more than 145 million years ago.

Araucaria araucana survived the dinosaurs, but today scientific experts consider the tree endangered. Cultivated monkey puzzle trees grow in gardens and parks around the world, but in the wild, the species only grows along the slopes of the volcanoes of Patagonia in Chile and Argentina.

Fires, land clearing, overgrazing and logging have shrunk the temperate forest where the monkey puzzle tree grows. The large seeds are also a prized food source for an endemic bird species, the Australian parakeet.

The green-hued parrots, in flocks of about 15 birds, flutter from tree to tree to find a good place to fatten up for the winter. When the birds hit the jackpot, their numbers can exceed 100, and they eat the pine nuts of monkey puzzles.

Edelmiro Pellao harvests seeds from the top of an Araucaria, or monkey puzzle tree, in Argentina's Comunidad Mapuche Ruca Choroi.

the looting parakeets, despite their bottomless hunger for the nuts, could actually help the monkey puzzle trees survive in Patagonia, recent research has shown.

Scientists say the birds act as a buffer against the threat posed by humans over-harvesting the nuts.

The parakeets usually take the pine nuts and consume them from a treetop tens of meters away. Often the birds only partially eat the seeds.

In fact, according to the 2018 study, partial seed coat removal by parakeets improved the germination rate of monkey puzzle seeds.

“They (the parakeets) play an important role in the regeneration of the araucaria forests because the partially eaten seeds they leave on the ground are not selected by seed collectors and they maintain their germination rate,” explains Gabriela. Gleiser and Karina Speziale, researchers at the Argentine Biodiversity and Environment Research Institute at the National University of Comahue.

In addition, they said via email, the parakeets disperse the seeds, meaning the trees regenerate further from the mother plant.

Gleiser and Speziale also examine whether the parakeets, as they flutter from branch to spiky branch, pollinate the female cones.

The parakeets are not the only residents to eat these nuts. They are also a traditional food source for Chili’s and The indigenous Mapuche people of Argentina, who skillfully climb the monumental trees to collect seeds and pound them into a flour that can be baked into bread. The nuts, which are larger than almonds, are also more widely eaten in the two countries, especially Chile.

Petrona Pellao walks among Araucaria trees in Argentina's Comunidad Mapuche Ruca Choroi.

The Mapuche have the right to collect nuts in their ancestral territory; But in addition, local authorities limit the amount of nuts that can be collected for personal and commercial purposes and require a permit, Gleiser and Speziale said.

“Nevertheless, there are many illegal collectors who collect without respecting collection limits,” the researchers added.

“Collecting human seed poses a major threat to (the) the reproduction of the monkey puzzle tree in those populations accessible to humans, as illegal seed collectors nearly exhaust the seed pools produced by the trees.”

However, the nuts damaged by the parakeets are discarded by collectors, so that the partially eaten nuts can still germinate.

Mapuche’s lifestyle is intertwined with the monkey puzzle tree. However, it was a bond that was almost broken during colonial times and until the 1990s, when industrial loggers cleared the land, including the Araucaria trees. The Mapuche demanded legal protection for the species and clashed with loggers and the Chilean government. The monkey puzzle trees are now protected by law throughout Patagonia.

The monkey puzzle trees can grow up to 160 feet tall and live 1,000 years.

“The Araucaria are just like the Mapuche people… even though they have been mistreated and beaten up, we all remain strong,” said Petrona Pellao, a member of the Mapuche Indigenous group, in the CNN documentary series “Patagonia: Life on the Edge of the World.”

The Mapuche are now replanting Araucaria trees and rediscovering their ancient ancestral practices. The aim is to help the Mapuche to grow pine nuts in a sustainable way and to allow the Araucaria trees to bloom again.

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