This Tree Starts Forest Fires on Purpose

Image: Teddy Fotiou

Eucalyptus trees are nature’s own pyromaniacs, capable of bursting into flames without warning.

There are more than 700 different species of eucalyptus trees in the world and most of them can be found in the outback of Australia. Covered in highly flammable leaves and containing highly ignitable oils, these trees are the kamikazes of the plant world.

These diverse flora can range from the size of a small shrub to a 30-foot tall specimen, divided into three distinct groups based on their different growth types. Forest trees are single stemmed for the majority of their length while woodland trees are single stemmed but often begin branching while still close to the ground. “Mallees” are the tallest of the eucalyptus species, multi-stemmed from the ground up and often branching off into different directions.

Unlike most other trees, eucalyptus trees tend to allow a great deal of light to filter through their canopies onto the ground, which allows scrub and grasses to grow beneath them.

This makes it difficult for eucalyptus trees to spread their seeds.

Image: Mark Marathon

To distribute their seeds, eucalyptus trees must eliminate these other plants in the area.

While their leaves and bark are highly flammable, they do not decompose in a massive burn. Instead, they embrace the fire as the flames consume the other plants around them.

Shoots sprouting from fire-damaged eucalyptus trunk. Image: JJRon

Due to this strategy, eucalyptus trees have established themselves as the dominant trees across the Australian continent.

Forest ecologist David Bowman of the University of Tasmania told KQED, “Looking at the eucalyptus forest outside my window in Tasmania, I see a gigantic fire hazard. On a really hot day, those things are going to burn like torches and shower our suburbs with sparks.”

As Australia began to dry out 20 million years ago, eucalyptus trees took advantage of the situation, and without great rivers or mountain chains to hinder their progress, they displaced the vast majority of rainforest that once blanketed the continent.

Today, only the eucalyptus-munching koalas can stop them!

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