Phoenix from the Ashes?

Good news for the TCI’s National Tree.

Story & Photos By B Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

The Turks & Caicos Islands’ National Tree, the stately Caicos pine Pinus caribaea var. bahamensis, has had a rough few decades recently. Following the introduction of the invasive pine tortoise scale insect, which infests trees through their fatality, as well as a sea surge and catastrophic wildfire in 2008–2009, and then several more significant hurricanes, over 97% of the population of this vital species was lost.

Caicos pine is the foundation species of the pine yard, part of the globally imperiled pine rockland ecosystem, a habitat unique to the Caicos Islands and northern Bahamas, with fragments in southern Florida (but hosting a different species of pine).

Since 2008 the Caicos Pine Recovery Project has been striving to save the species and help restore its ecosystem. The team members — researchers, conservationists, technicians and volunteers from numerous government agencies, NGOs and institutions — all understood that their efforts may not yield appreciable or even visible results during their lifetimes.

Trees work on a different time scale than humans — they don’t care that we only live a handful of decades when their lifetimes span centuries. It takes a certain naïve and somewhat dismal optimism to dedicate one’s life to saving trees and the ecosystems they support, along with an acceptance that one really doesn’t have enough time to carry one’s work to completion because human mortality will eventually interfere.

The parent tree of the Caicos Pine seedlings benefited from the 2012 controlled burn.

A few of those committing their time to Caicos pine recovery remember the tall, shady forests of pine strewn across the rocky plains on the southern rock flats of Middle and North Caicos, a broad band of fragrant forest sandwiched between the broadleaf thicket and the mangrove swamps. None of them imagined they would be there to see the forest return to that sort of glory. And yet they drudged on: Collecting and sowing seeds, tending a nursery, cultivating the unique symbiotic fungi that live on the pines’ roots, cleaning pine needles of pests, researching the genetics and chemistry and stress and symbioses of the pines and maintaining the essential element of fire in their habitat.

Pine yard, surprisingly, is a forest that needs to burn — it is fire-dependent, and exclusion of fire for too long leads to invasion by broadleaf trees and an eventual total and permanent takeover. Pine seedlings can’t grow in broadleaf trees’ dense shade — but broadleaf trees can’t take repeated ground fires like pine can. Lightning strikes used to ignite pine yards, but the habitat’s fragmentation from the scale insect now prevents fires from functioning in the proper way. Controlled burns are the answer, wherein teams of specialists prepare the ground, cut firebreaks and expertly apply fire to the habitat in a way that it is safe for humans and trees. The first controlled burn in May 2012 was successful (in that there were no accidents, escaped fires or pine trees permanently harmed) but none of the burn team knew just how successful it would be.

This Caicos Pine seedling is the first of its kind grown in the wild in over 10 years.

Within months of the burn, there were obvious benefits: Saplings that had been festooned with scale insects and stunted for years by their parasitism suddenly flushed with new growth and quadrupled their height in a year. The release of nutritious ash into the soil and the reduction of broadleaf competition, coupled with scale insects’ dislike of heat and smoke, encouraged growth. But with mature pines all but gone there was no significant seed production (those that remained bore cones that remained scantily fertilized due to low pollen count in the air) and so no recruitment. The young saplings grew to two metres, then five, then eight and they finally began producing cones, but seeds were still few. Caicos pinecones can hold over 80 seeds and trees can produce dozens of cones, but production was down to single digits of seed per tree annually and not all were viable. More clusters of pines grew, but there was no indication that the habitat would be self-sustaining within the near future.

And then, serendipitously in mid-December, which happens to be Caicos Pine Awareness Month, a remarkable manifestation was observed in the pine yard. During a field trip to one of the burn plots by participants in the collaborative DECR/Bahamas Forestry Unit’s Plant Identification Training, something familiar caught Junel “Flash” Blaise’s eye. Having grown hundreds of Caicos pine seedlings in the project nursery and having rescued dozens from unsuitable wild spots over the years, Flash’s sense for finding tiny, newly germinated pine seedlings is nothing short of supersensory. Under a pine tree on the far side of Burn Plot #2, he noticed a lime-green, brush-like seedling. With just a cursory glance around, Flash counted six more, including a seedling so young it only had its first four needles. The parent tree above had been a crippled sapling barely a foot high before the 2012 burn, but had grown into a sturdy, four metre tree with the help of the nutritious ash. Near its crown, a cluster of fat, chestnut-coloured cones yawned, their scales open having dropped their seeds in October.

The 2017 hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed the Caicos Pine Recovery Project Nursery and seed collections for 2019 were put on hold until the nursery could be rebuilt. But here the Caicos pines had taken up the task themselves for the first time in over a decade.

The seedlings are an unexpected sign of hope: They signify that trees are healthy enough to produce viable seed and numerous enough to shed sufficient pollen to fertilize young cones. While pine tortoise scale insect is still present in the pine yard, their infestation is greatly reduced and trees are healthier and more robust than they have been since the insect arrived in TCI.

“Flash” Blaise found the new seedlings in the needle duff.

As the seedlings grow, their new roots will knit into the diverse array of soil fungi that help the pine grow and draw up the nutritious ash still present in the thin soil released by the 2012 burn. In time, they will grow taller and shed their old needles, contributing to the blanket of fuel for the next burn. If conditions continue to be favourable, seeds will be produced annually and will help restore this small patch of pine yard to a density like the pre-scale insect habitat.
And while the project team may not be able to see restored, intact habitat with large mature trees within their lifetimes, they will continue to watch over the new seedlings and document their growth—and be excited to see the first glimpse of the Caicos pine’s unique ecosystem rising from the ashes.

To see the National Tree in its natural habitat and witness the habitat recovery, visit the Caicos Pine Yard Trail: National Tree Ramble on Middle Caicos (on King Road, one mile past Conch Bar Caves National Park gate). The fully-interpreted trail is under half a mile over level ground and is free to visit sunrise to sunset. It is part of the 660-acre Caicos Pine Core Conservation Area for Middle Caicos and protected within the North, Middle and East Caicos Wetlands Nature Reserve (a Ramsar Wetlands Convention Site).

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