The Dawn Redwood - a Living Fossil
Redwood standing in front of the Yale Peabody Museum

Is the tree in the front of the Peabody special?

Is it ever! The tree, commonly know as a dawn redwood — Metasquoia glyptostroboides — from the bald cypress family, is actually a “living fossil” from China. These trees, thought to be extinct, were discovered in remote valleys in central China in the 1940s. Through the efforts of U.S. botanists, seeds were obtained from the trees and planted throughout North America and Europe.

The tree in front of the Yale Peabody Museum is grown from one of the seeds taken from the original find.

 

The dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is a stately conifer (cone-bearing tree) with a long history that stretches back into the Age of Dinosaurs. This close relative of the California redwood and the bald cypress, in essence a “living fossil,” was known only from the fossil record until it was rescued from the brink of extinction in the nick of geological time.

Before its discovery in an isolated valley in central China the last living population of dawn redwoods consisted of no more than a few hundred trees. These survivors were the remnant of a species that once flourished over vast areas of the Northern Hemisphere and that dominated the vegetation of Arctic latitudes for some 35 million years, until the onset of hard frosts and glaciers drove it from the northern polar regions. Its rediscovery is a real detective story, an example of how scientific discovery is an international endeavor. 

In 1941, in the midst of the Second World War, Japanese paleobotanist Shigeru Miki first coined the name Metasequoia for a common but perplexing species well-known in Northern Hemisphere fossil collections under a variety of different names, all of which were incorrect. Then in July 1943 Chan Wang, a scientist with China’s National Bureau of Forest Research at Chongqi, discovered a tree growing in the town of Moudao in central China that seemed to be brand new to science.

It wasn’t until about five years later that the Chinese botanist H. H. Hu finally recognized that Wang’s living tree was the same kind as Miki’s fossil tree. This discovery captured the imagination of scientists and the public alike, and it wasn’t long before the international distribution of dawn redwood seeds by Chinese and American scientists ensured that this priceless relic from the past would live to see another day.