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article imageCalifornia's albino 'ghost trees' may have been solved

By Karen Graham     Oct 10, 2016 in Environment
A walk through California's redwood forests is a thrilling adventure in itself, but once in a while, a lucky hiker may come across a ghostly phantom tree, almost an apparition. The ghostly albino tree is the height of a man and bears bone-white foliage.
What the visitor has come across is an albino redwood tree, one of only about 400 known to exist. The strange tree is unable to produce chlorophyll, and so its needles are white instead of green.
Because the albino redwood trees cannot produce sugar for energy, they are usually smaller than their giant green-needled relatives, and they don't live as long as them, either. But the mystery of how these ghost trees are able to survive at all has perplexed naturalists since the first one was documented in 1866.
Example of a very rare albino redwood tree  photographed by George Bruder on October 19  2014.
Example of a very rare albino redwood tree, photographed by George Bruder on October 19, 2014.
Wikimedia.org
It's interesting to note that Native American tribes knew about the ghost-like trees, and they have been recorded in tribal legends. California's indigenous Pomo people called the albino tree the "spirit Tree." and used it in their traditional cleansing ceremonies.
Biologist Zane Moore is a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis. The 22-year-old expert on albino redwoods became interested in them after hearing Dave Kuty, a docent at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz give a talk about the trees on the radio in 2010.
That interview set in motion a quest to find one of the ghost trees for himself, and eventually to pursue a study of the strange trees. When talking about the albino tree being able to exist, Moore says, “It shouldn't be here. It should be dead, but it's not. Just like a ghost.”
Albino foliage in the Santa Cruz Mountains  California  photographed by George Bruder.
Albino foliage in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California, photographed by George Bruder.
Wikimedia.org
Moore became convinced that there was a scientific explanation for the albino trees existence and set out to find it. Albino plants are not the same as albino animals. In animals, the condition is caused by a lack of the pigment, melanin. In plants, it comes down to the lack of another pigment, one that allows photosynthesis to take place, chlorophyll.
Moore says the albino trees have been classified by most scientists as "parasite trees" because they appear to be siphoning off nutrients from the roots of healthy trees that surround them in order to live. But something was wrong with this theory, says Moore, because the healthy trees appeared to allow this to happen.
Why do the ghost trees exist?
So Moore, along with a colleague, arborist Tom Stapleton, set out to first document the location of every albino redwood. When they mapped the results, they found that the ghostly trees seemed to grow in locations that would have been "less than favorable," leaving Moore and Stapleton to conclude that perhaps, environmental pressures were allowing the trees to survive.
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Next, the team got volunteers to send them clippings of the albino trees and their healthy neighbors. This is where the study really gets interesting. Moore found that the albino redwood needles contained a toxic mix of cadmium, copper and nickel.
He found that on average, the white needles contained double the parts per million of the heavy metals as did the needles from their healthy neighbors. Some needles tested had such high levels of heavy metals that it would have been enough to kill them 10 times over.
Moore thinks it all comes down to faulty stoma, the pores that plants use to exhale water. Plants with faulty stoma lose water faster and in turn, need to drink more water. Moore thinks this might explain why the levels of heavy metals were so much higher in the albino trees.
“It seems like the albino trees are just sucking these heavy metals up out of the soil,” Moore said. “They're basically poisoning themselves.” Moore presented his theory at a redwood conference in September and plans to publish his study next year. He concludes the trees are in a symbiotic relationship with their healthy relatives.
In other words, Moore thinks the ghost trees collect the toxic metals from the soil, protecting their brethren in return for the sugars needed to survive. Plant ecophysiologist, Jarmila Pittermann, with the University of California, Santa Cruz, agrees with Moore that faulty stoma is the basis for his findings.
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“It’s really interesting work, and I’m so glad he’s doing it," she said. "As far as conferring advantage to the healthy trees,” she added, “I think that more work needs to be done.” And there are more studies planned. Moore would like to see if the heavy metals stay bound up in the albino trees, or do they leach back into the soil.
Finding an albino redwood won't be easy, and this is a good thing. They are spread around the coastal groves of redwoods in the state, but their exact location is kept secret, except to a select group of albino redwood tree lovers. As Moore says, they need our protection, especially if they serve such a useful purpose.
More about ghost trees, albino redwood, California, Chlorophyll, toxic metals
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