A bird called the Clark's nutcracker and a tree called the whitebark pine have a good thing going. The tree's cones provide seeds for the nutcracker to eat. And, when the nutcracker buries some of the seeds for later, it "plants" a new forest of whitebark pines. Many other forest animals depend on the high-energy seeds, too. The system has always worked great . . . until now.
Trouble in Paradise
Lately there's been a big problem brewing. It's a fungus that causes blister rust—a disease that's killing too many whitebark pines. This fungus came to North America by accident on pine seedlings from Asia. The disease then spread quickly to wild-growing American pines. To help save whitebark pine forests, scientists are using what they've learned from the Clark's nutcracker.
First the scientists collect whitebark pine seeds, but only from trees that aren't sick from the fungus. They grow these seeds in nurseries, safe from hungry creatures. Later, they plant the seedlings in the places where whitebark pines grow best—that is, where the nutcrackers normally plant them. They hope that these extra-healthy new trees will grow without catching blister rust disease.
People are helping the birds help the trees. And that will help all the other forest animals that depend on the seeds from these special trees.
- Nut-Planter: One Clark's nutcracker can "plant" about 35,000 whitebark pine seeds in a year.
- Slow-Grower: A whitebark pine takes at least 50 years before it produces any cones. But then it can live for hundreds of years more.
- Eurasian Relatives: There's another pair of "nutty buddies" in Europe and Asia, where spotted nutcrackers plant the seed of stone pines.
- Global Warming Alert: A warmer climate would allow other trees to move up to places where now only whitebark pines grow. After a while, they'd take over, causing the slower-growing whitebark pines to disappear.
- Help on the Way: Find out more about people helping these trees in trouble at www.whitebarkfound.org
Illustration by John Dawson