This story practically brought tears to my eyes. I am a sucker for factual tales of the last this, or the final surviving that. The importance of species survival plans for endangered critters--both plants and animals--cannot be overestimated. I posted last Oct about the tragic story of the American Chestnut and how it may yet have a happy ending.
When I think how much good could have been done, say, in world conservation efforts, using the funds that we have pissed away in our misbegotten efforts to swagger in Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel ill. Instead we have thousands of dead. And, well, thousands of dead.
One day in 1895, while walking through the Ngoya Forest in Zululand, southern Africa, a botanist with the oh so suitable name of John Medley Wood caught sight of a tree. It sat on a steep slope at the edge of the woods and looked different from the other trees, with its thick multiple trunks and what seemed like a splay of palm fronds on top. From a distance it looked almost like a palm tree, and Dr. Wood — who made his living collecting rare plants (he directed a botanical garden in Durban) had some of the stems pulled up, removed, and sent one of them to London.
That little tree stem was then put in a box and left in the Palm House at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. It sat there, alone, for the next 98 years.
Named E. woodii, in Dr. Wood's honor, it is a cycad. Cycads are a very old order of tree and it turns out this one, which is still there in London, may be the very last tree of its kind on our planet, the last one to grow up in the wild.
Researchers have wandered the Ngoya forest and other woods of Africa, looking for an E. woodii that could pair with the one in London. They haven't found a single other specimen. They're still searching. Unless a female exists somewhere, E. woodii will never mate with one of its own. It can be cloned. It can have the occasional fling with a closely related species. Hybrid cycads are sold at plant stores, but those plants aren't the real deal. The tree that sits in London can't produce a true offspring. It sits there, the last in its long line, waiting for a companion that may no longer exist.
"Surely this is the most solitary organism in the world," writes biologist Richard Fortey, "growing older, alone, and fated to have no successors. Nobody knows how long it will live."
Along these lines back in 2000 or so I was temporarily working at Fort Sill, OK, and on the weekend went to one of the local museums. They had a nice exhibit about the Navaho code talkers of WWII (here and here), how they (along with all WWII vets) were rapidly dying off, and how sad it'd be when the last one would be gone.
I thought, the saddest event wouldn't be when the last one died, but rather when the next-to-last one died. Then the last one would have no one to talk to.
Like the cycad.