• Outdoors Outdoors

Scientist makes unthinkable discovery while exploring Texas' Big Bend National Park: 'Highlight of [my] career'

"There was definitely elation when we found it."

Quercus tardifolia in Big Bend National Park

Photo Credit: iStock

The Quercus tardifolia is a little-known type of oak tree that is native to, and exclusively found in, the Chisos Mountains located in Texas' Big Bend National Park. 

It was declared extinct about a decade ago, thought to be a victim of rising temperatures that made it impossible for the species to survive.

But conversation botanist Michael Eason recently got the surprise of a lifetime when he found a pair of Quercus tardifolia in Big Bend.

Eason, the associate director of conservation and collections at the San Antonio Botanical Garden's rare plants and conservation program, is one of the few people who could have identified the presumed-extinct oak tree for what it was, but even he was not initially sure.

"The oaks out here in West Texas and Northern Mexico are, in a word, 'confusing,'" he told KUT, Austin's public radio station, explaining that oak trees cross-pollinate, creating subspecies constantly. 

To navigate that confusion, Eason and his colleagues sent leaf clippings to Morton Arboretum in Illinois, where botanists were able to analyze them and confirm that they really were tardifolia.

"Oh, yeah. It's definitely a highlight of the career, finding something that was presumed extinct," Eason told KUT. "There's definitely elation when we found it that first day; I was pretty emotional. I don't think anyone thought that we would find two, and I don't think anyone ever thought that we would be looking at other populations on private land."

Because they "can't fight nature," Eason and his fellow conservationists do not plan to try to reintroduce more tardifolia to Big Bend. Instead, their plan is to grow them at botanic gardens and arboretums throughout the United States, ensuring the continued existence of the species.

Eason has already cut off shoots and grafted them onto oak rootstock at the San Antonio Botanical Garden and reported that they are thriving.

Join our free newsletter for cool news and cool tips that make it easy to help yourself while helping the planet.

Cool Divider