The Ancient Monkey Puzzle Tree Outlasted Dinosaurs. Now It's Facing Extinction.
The monkey puzzle tree is a remnant of the Jurassic era, more than 145 million years ago, surviving way past its ancient dinosaur counterparts. Reaching heights of about 160 feet, the evergreen tree has a lifespan of up to 700 years and stiff scaly branches with rigid spiral leaves. Monkey puzzle trees’ presence in the wild is shrinking and after million years, their very existence is now endangered.
Monkey puzzle trees or araucaria araucana, are only known to grow in Chile and Argentina, along the slopes of Patagonia’s volcanos. Due to increased human habitat encroachment, fires, and overgrazing, the forest habitat for the monkey puzzle tree grows has rapidly shrunk.
The extinction of this ancient tree poses a threat to the austral parakeet, which rely on its large seeds as a food source. Monkey puzzle pine nuts are vital to the flocks of green-hued parrots and studies show that both the tree and the parakeets benefit from this symbiotic relationship.
Scientists have found that the austral parakeet helps enhance the germination speed of the seeds by consuming them away from the original tree and leaving their partially eaten “leftovers” on the forest floor. The parakeets' vital dispersal helps new trees regenerate further away from the mother plant.
In addition to the parakeets, the monkey puzzle pine nuts are a traditional food source for the Indigenous Mapuche people. Using skillful climbing, the Mapuche people climb the trees to gather pine nuts. The monkey puzzle pine nuts are then pounded into that is utilized in bread recipes. Although the Mapuche people have the right to collect pine nuts in their ancestral areas, the local government restricts the quantity collected by the general public and requires a permit for commercial purposes.
Despite these regulations, illegal collection still occurs and the continued human seed collection threatens monkey puzzle tree populations. The Mapuche people have a history of protecting the monkey puzzle tree that is intertwined with their lifestyles. The Mapuche demanded legal protection for the tree that was facing extinction due to logging. Currently, the Mapuche people are working to replant and revitalize the monkey puzzle tree populations and hope that these ancient trees will one day thrive.