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NDSU researcher helping save rare, iconic trees



An NDSU botanist is part of a team working to save one of the rarest pine trees in the world.

Jill Hamilton, assistant professor of biological sciences, is conducting research to see if hybridization could help the rare, iconic Torrey pine bounce back from years of declining numbers due to drought and pests. Torrey pine grow on a small stretch of California coastline and on Santa Rosa Island, one of the Channel Islands. Many trees have died recently on the mainland, and the future of the species is in jeopardy from recent bark beetle attacks and an extended drought. 

“We view this study as a preliminary assessment of the consequences of crossing mainland and island trees, termed a genetic rescue, which could have important implications to the horticulture industry, pest resilience and long-term health and conservation of the Torrey pine population,” Hamilton said. 

Hamilton’s team is monitoring and observing individual trees under several different climate conditions. Hamilton said there is recent evidence hybrids between mainland and island Torrey pines have fared better in challenging conditions. However, more study is needed to determine long-term viability.  

The National Science Foundation-funded project has provided research opportunities for several NDSU undergraduate and graduate students. Participants are: doctoral student Lionel di Santo, biological sciences major Alexis Pearson and Zoe Portlas, and botany major Stephen Johnson.

Hamilton recently had a paper on the Torrey pine research accepted for publication in the journal Ecology and Evolution. The paper was co-written by Raphael Royaute, postdoctoral fellow at NDSU; Jessica Wright and Paul Hodgskiss, United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service; and the late F. Thomas Ledig, University of California, Davis.   

The title of the paper is: “Genetic conservation and management of the California endemic, Torrey pine: implications of genetic rescue in a genetically depauperate species.”

The Torrey pines study is part of an ongoing collaboration with the United States Forest Service, National Park Service, United States Geological Survey, California State Parks, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Torrey Pines Golf Course and the San Diego Zoo. 

In addition, Hamilton’s research has drawn interest from the Torrey Pines Golf Course. Many of the course’s trees have been decimated by bark beetle attacks in recent years. The new collaboration has expanded the application of Hamilton’s fundamental research. 

Torrey Pines Golf Course each year hosts the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open tournament.

The research is funded by Award No. 1626905 from the National Science Foundation. 

“Beyond an exciting research opportunity that integrates genetics and conservation, this project provides an invaluable opportunity to introduce undergraduate and graduate students to field sampling, experimental design and hypothesis testing,” Hamilton said. “It also has developed partnerships with governmental and non-governmental agencies, providing students with the opportunity to interact with scientists and communicate science with various interest groups.”

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