Saving the Stinking Cedar

Maybe "stinking cedar" isn't the most charismatic name for a species on the brink of extinction. I prefer to call it the Torreya pine. Whatever we choose to refer to this plant as, Torreya taxifolia in nonetheless quite endangered. In fact, it was the first plant species to be federally listed as endangered. 

We call it a cedar and it looks a lot like a yew but it is neither. T. taxifolia belongs to a small family of conifers called Cephalotaxaceae. Most members of this family are restricted to Asia but T. taxifolia is native to a very small region of northern Florida and southern Georgia. It was likely pushed that way by the glaciers. Limited seed dispersal kept it from returning to its former distribution. Today, what few trees remain can be found growing in wooded ravines and north-facing slopes. 

Something happened to T. taxifolia in the 1950's. Since then, populations of this tree have seen a 98% decline. Today only about 500 - 600 individuals can be found growing in its native range. What's more, only about 10 individuals are capable of reproduction. It is widely believed that the introduction of a suite of fungal pathogens are to blame. There is still some debate over this but trees in Florida and Georgia are top-killed before they reach reproductive age. Because of these factors, it is believed that the extinction of this tree in its native range is a painful inevitability. 

This has spurred quite a debate among the conservation minded among us. There are those that feel the only way to save this species is to transplant it to areas outside of its extant range. This has been done in a variety of locations farther north. These plants seem to escape the blight that killed their relatives farther south. Such assisted migration is not a new topic. It is something we have been mulling over for quite some time. With rapid climate change causing accelerated shifts in habitats around the globe, it would seem that for endangered species like T. taxifolia, assisted migration is the only hope. 

Others caution against such logic. Although it is highly unlikely that a species such as T. taxifolia would ever become an aggressive invader, many feel that it nonetheless sets a dangerous precedent. There is no way to predict how species are going to behave in a new habitat. An endangered species from one region may very well become an aggressive invader in another. Still, at the rate that we alter our environment, the debate seems to cloud our judgement on this issue of habitat conservation in general. T. taxifolia is but one species that is teetering on the edge of extinction. 

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