The monkey puzzle tree survived the dinosaurs but is now endangered

The new docu-series »Patagonia: life at the end of the worldexplores one of the wildest places on Earth. The six-part series is available at CNNgo. You can also access CNNgo through our CNN app.


The ancient monkey puzzle tree has distinctive spiny leaves and intricate scaly branches. Its unusual characteristics, according to scientists, evolved as a defense against towering, long-necked dinosaurs.

Reaching up to 160 feet (48.8 meters) tall and capable of living for a millennium, the evergreen tree is a survivor of the Jurassic era, over 145 million years ago.

Araucaria araucana survived the dinosaurs, but today scientific experts consider endangered tree. Cultivated monkey puzzle trees grow in gardens and parks around the world, but in the wild the species only grows along the slopes of Patagonian volcanoes in Chile and Argentina.

Fires, land clearing, overgrazing and logging have shrunk the temperate forest where the monkey tree grows. Its large seeds are also a popular food source for an endemic bird species, the austral Budgie.

The green-hued parrots, in groups of about 15 birds, fly from tree to tree to find a good place to fatten up for the winter. When the birds hit the jackpot, their numbers can reach over 100, and they gorge themselves on pine nuts.

Edelmiro Pellao harvests seeds from the top of an Araucaria, or monkey puzzle tree, in the Mapuche community of Ruca Choroi in Argentina.

the marauding parakeets, despite their inexhaustible appetite for nuts, may actually help monkey trees survive in Patagonia, recent search found.

Scientists say the birds act as a buffer against the threat posed by human overharvesting of the nuts.

Parakeets usually take the pine nuts and consume them from a perch dozens of meters away. Often the birds only partially eat the seeds.

In fact, partial seed coat removal by parakeets improved the germination rate of monkey puzzle seeds, according to 2018 study.

“They (the parakeets) play an important role in regenerating araucaria forests because the partially eaten seeds they leave on the ground are not selected for by seed collectors and they retain their germination potential,” explained two of the study authors, Gabriela Gleiser and Karina Speziale, researchers at the University of Argentina Biodiversity and Environment Research Institute at the National University of Comahue.

Additionally, they said by email, parakeets disperse seeds, which means trees regenerate farther from the parent plant.

Tracks and specials are also studying whether the parakeets, flapping from branch to thorny branch, pollinate the female cones.

Parakeets aren’t the only residents to eat these nuts. They are also a traditional source of food for Chileans and The indigenous Mapuche people of Argentina, who skillfully climb the monumental trees to collect seeds and pound them into a flour that can be baked into bread. Walnuts, which are larger than almonds, are also consumed more in both countries, especially in Chile.

Petrona Pellao walks among Araucaria trees in the Mapuche community of Ruca Choroi in Argentina.

The Mapuche have the right to harvest nuts in their ancestral region; however, beyond that, local authorities restrict the amount of nuts that can be collected for personal and commercial use and require a permit, Gleiser and Speziale said.

“Despite this, there are many illegal collectors who collect without respecting collection limits,” the researchers added.

“The collection of human seeds poses a significant threat to (the) reproduction of the monkey puzzle tree in populations accessible to people, as illegal seed collectors nearly deplete the supply of seeds produced by the trees.

However, nuts damaged by parakeets are discarded by collectors, so partially eaten nuts may still germinate.

The Mapuche way of life is intimately linked to the monkey puzzle tree. However, it was a bond that was nearly severed during colonial times and until the 1990s when industrial loggers stripped the land, including Araucaria trees. Demanding legal protection for the species, the Mapuche have clashed with loggers and the Chilean government. The monkey puzzle trees are now protected by law throughout Patagonia.

Monkey puzzle trees can grow up to 160 feet tall and live for 1,000 years.

“The Araucaria are like the Mapuche people…even though they have been abused, beaten, we all remain strong,” said Petrona Pellao, a member of the Mapuche indigenous group, in the CNN docuseries. « Patagonia: life at the end of the world.”

The Mapuche are now replant Araucaria and rediscover their ancient ancestral practices. The aim is to help the Mapuche sustainably cultivate pine nuts and allow Araucaria trees to thrive again.

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