Tales of the Wild

Trees That Are Out of this World

As citizens of the San Francisco Bay Area, there are seemingly countless places to visit and a plethora of sights to see. We have a giant, iconic golden bridge, some of the most famous wine vineyards in the nation, breeding elephant seals, and even an infamous obsolete prison located on an island. If you look past the well-known landmarks, there are many lesser-known sights that some may consider even more beautiful or interesting. What many Bay Area residents and tourists don’t realize is that they can take a short trip to see trees that have literally been to outer space. It isn’t science fiction, it’s real! 

Back in 1971, Apollo 14 launched into space for another American mission to the moon. On board the ship was a container of approximately 400-500 seeds from five different species native to the United States, including our California native coastal redwood tree. The Forest Service led the experiment, also having control seeds prepped on Earth to compare to the space seeds once they returned from space. They were curious to see what differences, if any, a trip to space would have on the seeds once they germinated. The container of seeds stayed on board the ship as some of the astronauts ventured onto the moon. The ship orbited the moon 34 times before the trip back to Earth. 

Coast Redwood

After a successful return to Earth, they began prep for the research of the moon seeds, but unfortunately the canisters that the seeds were in bursted while being decontaminated. The researchers feared that this killed all of the seeds, but to their surprise the Forest Service stations in Placerville, California and Gulfport Mississippi were able to successfully germinate almost all of the seeds. When planted alongside control seeds, researchers found no notable differences in the way the moon trees grew. After a few years they decided to gift the seedlings to different forestry organizations across the country, and even to other countries like Brazil and Japan. In the years 1976 and 1977 the moon trees were planted in areas all over the United States, one of the most notable being a Loblolly Pine tree at the White House in January 1977. 

At least ten moon trees were planted in the state of California, all of which were coastal redwood trees, but most locations where moon saplings were planted were not recorded, so it may be more. Some of the trees in known planting sites are located in Capital Park in Sacramento, Humboldt State University in Arcata, and Mission Plaza in San Luis Obispo. There are also two moon trees known in the San Francisco Bay Area, both of which were planted in July of 1976 in Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley hills. One is planted in the redwood grove of the park’s botanical garden, with a plaque that explains its history. The other is planted in front of a mini grove of redwoods right beside the visitor center at the Tilden Nature Area, next to the Little Farm. 

The redwood moon trees may not look any different from the trees they are planted next to, but visit these giant historic plants and you’ll get to see or even touch a tree that has been to the moon!


The Power of a Bird Brain

When you think of smart animals, what are some of the first species that come to mind? Many people might say dogs, chimpanzees, dolphins, or even pigs. These animals are indeed some of the smartest in the world, but there is one animal with formidable wits that many people don’t realize is one of the smartest species there is… the pigeon! This intelligent bird often gets labelled as dim-witted, but in reality the pigeon has been observed using human made structures for navigation, is considered self-aware, and can even be cultured in the arts.

Just like people, pigeons are known to use roads to navigate where they are going. Instead of attempting to fly straight to their desired location (or as the crow flies), pigeons can follow familiar roads, railway tracks, and even rivers. In a study by Oxford University, researchers attached tracking devices to a number of birds and found that time after time, pigeons would continuously follow the same paths down streets. They even knew which exits to take when approaching roundabouts. While travelling this way takes up more energy, they concluded that this method was less mentally demanding for the bird. 

Not only can pigeons be great with directions, but they are one of the few animals that have passed the mirror test. The mirror test is a test done on animals with a mirror to determine if they are able to identify themselves. In one study done by Lafayette College, researchers placed a blue dot on the feathers of pigeons which went unnoticed at first. Once the mirror was uncovered, the pigeons noticed the blue dot in the mirror, found it on their feathers and touched it with their beaks. This makes pigeons one of the few animals that pass the mirror test along with chimpanzees, orangutans, elephants, dolphins and a few more species. It also means that pigeons are more self aware than the average 1-year-old human. 

Self-recognition is nothing to scoff at, but what may be pigeons most fascinating feat is their ability to recognize human art. In 1995 at Keio University in Japan, researchers conducted a test on a number of pigeons. In this experiment, they put the pigeons in front of a button and showed them different paintings by Monet and Picasso. Every time the pigeons clicked the button when a painting by Monet popped up, the researchers awarded the pigeons with a treat. They switched and did the same with Picasso’s paintings. After a while, the pigeons were able to determine which painting was by which artist from a select number of paintings,  getting the correct answer around 90% of the time. The truly amazing part is that the researchers began showing new paintings not originally shown to the pigeons, and the birds still chose the correct artist the majority of the time. Even when the painting was shown in black and white, or inverted, the pigeons still were able to select the correct answer, meaning that the pigeons were matching the artists with the paintings based off of style alone. 

The accomplishments of pigeons could make anyone question their choice of words the next time they want to use the phrase ‘bird brain.’ Although they may not be the first species that come to mind when thinking of animal intelligence, pigeons can definitely hold their own against some of the smartest species in the world.

Fallen Giants and the Trees That Need Them

One of the most fascinating environmental dilemmas in recent history is the defunct relationship between one of the world’s most famous trees and gargantuan beasts that disappeared at the end of the last ice age. The famous “tree” in question is the Joshua tree, an ecological gem of the American Southwest. These plants have inspired awe and wonder for as long as people have encountered them, but in recent times, the range of the Joshua tree has been  gradually shrinking. One of the main reasons for this is due to the absence of sloths… giant sloths. 

Nothrotheriops shastensis, a species of giant ground sloth also called the Shasta ground sloth, roamed the American Southwest from the time they migrated to the region some 8 million years ago until their demise more than 11,000 years ago. They are an ancestor of the tree sloths now found in modern day South America, but they were the size of a black bear, weighed over 500 pounds, and had very long claws. Believe it or not, humans interacted with these prehistoric giants for a few thousand years and were possibly the main driver of their extinction due to excessive hunting. It is thought that their extinction has led to some changes in Southwest ecosystems. One of the most notable species that has been affected is the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). 

The range of Joshua trees has been shrinking since the end of the last ice age, the Pleistocene epoch, over 11,000 years ago. Some had hypothesized that it may have been in relation to the changing climate, but further research found that the Joshua tree has lost its main means of seed dispersal. Many of the species that consume the fruits have stomach acid that kills the seeds, preventing germination from the animal’s excrement. On top of that, the species that are able to consume the seeds of the Joshua tree without damaging them, like the desert woodrat, may live their entire lives without traveling more than a couple hundred feet from their dwelling. 

In a Nevada cave in the 1930’s, scientists discovered Joshua tree fruit and seeds that were preserved in excrement from a Shasta ground sloth. This evidence supports the hypothesis that ground sloths were a vital seed disperser of the Joshua tree. Individual sloths could ingest the fruits and travel dozens of miles before excreting them. Since the discovery in the 1930’s, there have been many other similar findings. Joshua trees and other plants that relied on ground sloths, including avocado trees, are victims of evolutionary anachronism, a process where an existing species loses a partner species with which it coevolved.  

Illustration by Carl Buell

While the Joshua tree has suffered from the absence of ground sloths for thousands of years, it faces many more immediate problems. During the 35 day U.S. government shutdown of 2018-2019, Joshua Tree National Park suffered severe damage. Without normal park supervision, many trees were cut down or damaged, trails were littered with garbage and dog excrement, vandals drove off road in sensitive habitat areas, and more. A park official stated that it would take hundreds of years for the ecosystems in Joshua Tree National Park to fully recover. As with many species, climate change is also a significant factor affecting Joshua tree’s health. We can aid all species affected by climate change by letting our government officials know we care about climate change, spreading the word about its effects, and using more clean energy. To learn more or to support Joshua trees, visit the Joshua Tree National Park Association at Joshuatree.org.