Last of the Lomatia

Wondering what's going on here? This is a clipping of the 43,600-year-old Lomatia Tasmanica, propagated in the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens.

There is only one single living individual Lomatia Tasmanica left in the world. It flowers, rarely, and there are pollen and a stigma in each flower, but as the plant is a triploid, it is sterile. [corrected from original post.] And it is 43,600 years old. How is that possible? It's growing clonally, as you've heard me talk about before: it continues to send up new shoots, without the introduction of new genetic material.

I was not granted permission to visit the Lomatia in the wild (more on my thoughts about the Tasmanian Parks Department later), though I was glad to see it in the Gardens. The clippings propagated there and one in Canberra are the only other places it can be found in the world, and even then it is not on public display. The clippings are so sensitive, in fact, that the only time one spent half a day in public view in slighly different conditions, it died. That hardly bodes well for its survival.

The Lomatia Tasmanica is continuing its line in the only possible way it can: by cloning itself over and over again, theoretically forever, though that is unlikely given the instability of our climate to come.

12,000-year-old Antarctic Beech

This image is of a fairy ring of Antarctic Beech which is probably around 12,000 years old, living in Queensland, Australia. The ring of trees is a single, clonal individual, growing vegetatively (as opposed to adding genetic material from another individual as in sexual reproduction.)

There are a number of other clonal Antarctic Beech living in the area, though not all have been studied. I was lucky enough to have botanist Rob Price, a veritable expert in all the local flora and fauna, guide me out to this stand, as well as others in the area. (Rob first got in touch with me after seeing my TED talk. So glad he did, as I otherwise might have missed them.)

Why Antarctic? These beauties used to cover Antarctica in its milder days, before its present iced-over state. As Gondwana broke apart 180 million years ago and the South got colder, the Antarctic Beeches worked themselves up to more suitable climes. Talk about going the distance.

Waking Up Down Under

I haven't finished penning the story of my Sri Lankan mishap yet, but I couldn't help but start my next adventure. This morning I woke up in Australia. No, not all of a sudden, but rather after a somewhat perplexing 16-zone time change and two full turns of the calendar between JFK and Sydney. Who was it that said in regard to sea sickness that it feels like you're going to die when you have it, but to everyone else around you it's just funny? Ditto on the jetlag.

There's a lot on my agenda in Oz -- not to mention a lot of physical ground to cover --
between now and December 23rd. Antarctic Beech trees that have inched their way out of now frozen pole over tens of thousands of years to settle on the Gold Coast. A Eucalyptus so rare that all I can tell you is that it's in New South Wales and might be 10,000 years old. In Western Australia there are the Stromatolites, which are beyond fascinating and beautifully complex, and their neighbor to the south, a 5,000-year-old Gum tree. And the two clonal organisms in Tasmania that caught my fancy back in 2006 when this project was still but a twinkle in my eye: the 10,000-year-old clonal Huon Pine on Mount Read, and the Lomatia Tasmanica...a 43,600-year-old clonal shrub that is literally the last of its kind left on earth, and yet theoretically immortal. The sheer magnitude of its solitary existence and unfathomable perseverance gives me a chill every time I think about it. But you can't just stroll right up to this wonder (save for visiting a clipping in the Hobart botanical garden.) I'm still working on securing permission to visit the two Tasmanian sites.

It struck me on the plane ride over that I had no idea what The Oldest Living Things would become back when I first photographed the Giant Sequoias and other California elders that are, relatively speaking, close to home, and how fortunate that I waited to come to Australia. If I had made this trip in the project's nascent stages, I wouldn't have known about half of the organisms on my current itinerary. I'm glad to be taking this journey now, having learned a great deal about what to look for and how to look for it in the intervening years. 

Today my primary goal is a simple one: to stay awake during daylight hours. Tonight I'm embracing the idiosyncrasies of travel by accepting an invitation to see Eddie Izzard perform live. And on Saturday it's up to the Gold Coast to kick off a few weeks of photographing organisms tens of thousands of years in the making.