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 known as a dawn redwood — Metasequoia glyptostroboides — from the cypress family (Cupressaceae), 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 collaborative efforts of several Chinese and American scientists, seeds were obtained from the trees and planted worldwide.

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, in essence a “living fossil,” was known only from the fossil record until it was discovered in central China in the 1940s.

Before its discovery in an isolated valley in central China, the last living population of dawn redwoods consisted of no more than 1000 trees. These survivors were the remnant of a species that once flourished over vast areas of the Northern Hemisphere dominating 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, and 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 Chongqing, 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 immediately captured the imagination of scientists and the public alike, and seeds of dawn redwood were soon distributed worldwide through the efforts of several Chinese and American scientists.   While this cultivation and conservation have increased the chance of the species' survival, the dawn redwood is still very rare in the wild. Much needs to be done to ensure its continued existence in its natural habitats.




For Further Reading


Hsueh, C., 1985, Reminiscences of collecting the type specimens of Metasequoia glyptostroboides H. H. Hu & Cheng. Arnoldia, vol. 45, pp.11-18.


Hu, H. H., 1948, How Metasequoia, the “living fossil” was discovered in China. Journal of the New York Botanical Garden, vol. 49, pp. 201-207.


Leng, Q. et al., 2007, Database of native Metasequoia glyptostroboides trees in China based upon new census survey and expeditions. Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, vol. 48, pp. 185-233.


Ma, J., 2007, A worldwide survey of cultivated Metasequoia glyptostroboides Hu & Cheng (Taxodiaceae: Cupressaceae) from 1947 to 2007. Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, vol. 48, pp. 235-253.


Ma, J., and Shao, G., 2003, Rediscovery of the ‘first collection’ of the ‘living fossil’, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Taxon, vol.52, pp. 585-588.


Tredici, P. D., 2007, The Arnold Arboretum: A botanical bridge between the United States and China from 1915 through 1948. Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, vol. 48, pp. 261-268.