Reaching up to 160 feet (48.8 meters) tall and able to live for a millennium, the evergreen tree is a survivor from the Jurassic era, more than 145 million years ago.
Fires, land clearance, overgrazing and logging have shrunk the temperate forest where the monkey puzzle tree grows. Its large seeds are also a prized food source for an endemic species of bird, the austral parakeet.
The green-hued parrots, in flocks of about 15 birds, flit from tree to tree to find a good spot to fatten up for the winter. When the birds hit the jackpot, their numbers can swell to more than 100, and they gorge on monkey puzzle pine nuts.
Scientists say the birds act as a buffer against the threat posed by human overharvesting of the nuts.
The parakeets typically take the pine nuts and consume them from a treetop perch dozens of feet away. Often, the birds only partially eat the seeds.
What’s more, they said via email, the parakeets disperse the seeds, which means the trees regenerate further away from the mother plant.
Gleiser and Speziale are also investigating whether the parakeets, as they flap from branch to spiny branch, pollinate the female cones.
The parakeets aren’t the only residents who eat these nuts. They are also a traditional source of food for Chile’s and Argentina’s Indigenous Mapuche people, who skillfully climb the monumental trees to collect seeds and pound them into a flour that can be baked into bread. The nuts, which are larger than almonds, are also eaten more widely in the two countries, particularly Chile.
The Mapuche have the right to collect nuts in their ancestral area; however, beyond this, local authorities restrict the amount of nuts that can be collected for personal and commercial purposes and require a permit, Gleiser and Speziale said.
“Despite this, many illegal collectors exist who collect without respecting the collection limits,” the researchers added.
“Human seed collection represents an important threat to (the) monkey puzzle tree’s reproduction in those populations that are accessible for people, as illegal seed collectors almost deplete the seed pools produced by the trees.”
However, the nuts damaged by the parakeets are discarded by collectors, so the partially eaten nuts can still germinate.
The Mapuche lifestyle is interwoven with the monkey puzzle tree. However, it was a bond that was almost broken during colonial times and up to the 1990s, when industrial loggers stripped the land, including the Araucaria trees. Demanding legal protection for the species, the Mapuche clashed with loggers and the Chilean government. The monkey puzzle trees are now protected by law across Patagonia.