Deep in the rain forest on the southern edge of Australia’s Nightcap Range, around 200 unassuming gray trees are among the last survivors of a fallen world. These are Eidothea hardeniana, trees that trace their roots to the bygone supercontinent of Gondwana, where long-necked sauropods grazed on towering conifers and flowers were an evolutionary novelty.
The Eidothea lineage has survived the fracturing of its continent and the cosmic catastrophe that ended the age of the dinosaurs. But it might not survive the disaster now facing it, living in a biosphere that’s been vandalized by humanity.
Tens of millions of years of tectonic transfiguration and the slow desiccation of Australia have steadily eroded Eidothea’s territory, constricting its two living species to patches of forest along the continent’s eastern coastline. One of those species, Eidothea hardeniana, or the Nightcap Oak, occupies just a few acres of land in a rain-forest preserve. The grove’s adult trees resprout over and over by cloning, and some of them are likely to be many thousands of years old.
This past bushfire season killed at least 10 percent of the population. It was the worst in living memory—a disaster brought on by a multiyear drought, months of extreme heat, and the warming, drying effects of humanity’s fossil carbon emissions—and up to 30 percent of Eidothea hardeniana’s grove was harmed by fire. For a species that numbers so few, Robert Kooyman, a botanist at Macquarie University, told me, “losing any individuals is a disaster.”