A Creepy Monster of the Forest: The Albino, Vampiric Redwood Tree

By Jennifer Welsh | December 8, 2010 12:58 pm

450px-Albino_redwoodOrganisms with albino mutations are pretty weird in general, but albino plants are extra weird.

Ultra-rare albino redwood trees completely lack the green pigment chlorophyll, which they need to live (by photosynthesizing nutrients from light). These plants are literally vampires. They are pale (everwhite instead of evergreen), and they survive by sucking the life from other trees.

These vampires remain attached to the roots of their healthy, normal, parent trees (coastal redwoods can reproduce asexually by sprouting new shoots from roots or stumps), and survive by sucking energy from them. They can keep this up for a century. Historian Sandy Lyndon explained the phenomenon to KQED:

“Albinism is a genetic mutation that prevents cells from producing pigment. In humans and other animals, albinism is not necessarily such a big deal. But albino plants are unable to do the very thing that makes a plant a plant. Without chlorophyll, they can’t photosynthesize, meaning they can’t convert sunlight into energy. The only reason that albino redwoods survive at all is that they are connected at the root to a parent tree from which they will suck energy for their entire lives.”

Only about 25 of these trees are known to exist around the world, eight of which are at Henry Cowell State Park in California, where rangers and researchers from Stanford University and UC Santa Cruz are studying them, as KQED explains:

Their needles are limp and waxy. They’re the exact color of a glow-in-the-dark star you might find in a kid’s bedroom. And while no one really knows for sure, albino redwood trees may be extremely rare…. And yet, eight of them live here. This park has the largest known concentration of albino redwoods anywhere, and that makes it the epicenter for a scientific mystery.

The redwood is a genetic mixing barrel–with six sets of chromosomes, the species can mix and match, experimenting with different combinations and allowing quick adaptations to fight off fungus and viruses that could otherwise decimate the population.

Albinism just seems to be one of the more evolutionarily unsuccessful experiments these trees have performed, though they keep coming back, park docent Dave Kuty explained to the San Jose Mercury News:

When times get tough, the parent tree withdraws all support and the seedlings perish, turning brown. In times of abundant rain, they sprout again, flourishing. “They come and go, like ghosts,” Kuty said. “They starve to death and shrink back. Then they reappear.”

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Image: Wikimedia commons / Cole Shatto

  • megan

    Better protect them before some Tanzanians sneaking in just to cut them down for voodoo medicine concoctions. They luv them some dead albinos for goodluck.

  • Lee

    @ megan:

    Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it be just a smidge less cruel if they used trees instead of something like, oh, human beings? Just a smidge, mind you.

    • Danielle

      @ Lee@37af66b7be2a0f63eaa29b7442c586de:disqus
      Meh, humans are ruining our Earth anyways. I say use the humans and leave the trees.

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  • Terri Fuller

    My son Jason and I were hiking in the Avenue of the Giants Redwood State Park in November 2010, and saw one of these trees. We took several pictures and at the time had know idea what we were looking at. We are very excited to know what caused this beautiful and wondrous tree. We are from Wisconsin spent time in several of the Redwood Parks hiking and taking in the giants.

  • Tyler

    Just to say we’ve discovered ways of life to live in ways we had never even imagined before. we knew of the Venus fly trap and we have found a salamander that photo synthesizes im sure there are many more but it just goes to show you the amazing lengths life goes to survive

  • d

    If they were “Literally” vampires they would
    1. be bats
    2. feed on blood

    What happened to people that can write without interjecting garbage, I would expect more from discover magazine; apparently I shouldn’t.

  • http://stumbleupon.com SomoneSmarterThanYou

    Vampirism is not subjective to just bats or the feeding of blood for that matter. Look up the definition and then maybe next time you comment online, you’ll not be a smug, not so intelligent a**hole….

    [Moderator's note: edited the cuss word.]

  • http://gmail Susann McCray

    OMG…My mother found a way to come back. She thrived on sucking the life out of others by the same behaviour, only exception was she drained her children.

  • Nelis Kools

    Hello people,

    I do own the dutch(netherlands) plantcollection’s of Sequoia and Sequoiadendron, and that means that we collect all kind off information about these plants. Besides a lot of plants and books and other material i also visited the trees many times. Also in the hope to find one the the ghost redwoods, mentioned in one of my books. But i never found one. Can someone help me more about finding one to make some pictures. Or is there someone who can share some pictures?

    many thanks in advance

  • Nathan Gomkassi

    @Nelis — a flickr search for “albino redwoods” — http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=albino%20redwood&w=all — will point you at a bunch of photos taken by a bunch of people.

  • Jen

    Wouldn’t the correct description for these trees’ survival strategy be cannibalism? The headline would be just as sensational: “A Creepy Monster of the Forest: The Albino Cannibal Redwood Tree”.

    • Anonymous

       They just share the “juices” from their host, they don’t digest their blood, they just get nutrients from it like as if they were just another branch of their host.

  • Helen

    No, Jen, because cannibalism is devouring another of your own kind. The parent tree is not eaten, the albino merely draws off some resources. Vampire is an apt term for that.

  • Mark Fulton

    Some of the more interesting plants in the forest do things like this. Coral root orchids, pine drops, and indian pipes all get by without chlorophyll – apparently by parasitizing fungi that form associations with plant roots. Indirectly, they are parasites on the surrounding plants that support these fungi. This one seems to be a more direct connection to the green adult trees, although I’d want to see more details on that.

    Pretty cool in any case that a species that is normally green can support this even in rare cases.

  • UyeahU

    Hmmm, could these odd redwoods be grafted unto the roots (or perhaps trunks) of normal ones? Seems like they would be popular ornamentals, and by spreading them around lessen the chance of their extinction by fire, drought or other means. Of course that would mean having two redwood trees in your yard which grow fast and get very large with time.

  • tm

    It’s not a vampire, it is a parasitic child. Like the average slashdot commenter.

  • Jon

    The Albino Redwood Tree is not, nor ever will be, vampiric in nature, form or function. It is classed as a plant species which evolved by forming a parasitic relationship with another plant. In this case, its gets nutrition from a host tree.

    Vampirism refers to the feeding behavour of some mammal species. Such mammals use their teeth to penetrate the blood supply of another (host) mammal body. To describe the life cycle of the Albino Redwood as a blood sucker is bissare. What next? Will we read of blood sucking, vampiric leachers, mosquitoes or flies!

    Oh and here is a curious idea. Since evolution favours no colour over another, it is possible that one day in the future the Albino Redwood may not be rare. Just look in the mirror. White skinned people were once an extreme oddity of this planet.

  • Grey

    @ Jon
    There is quite a bit of difference between albino and light coloured.

    Albinism is a genetic defect, and other than in cases where an entity has adapted to a life devoid of light, is usually a weakness.

    For plants it is even more so. Thus, while you may be correct in numbers possibly increasing, it will be due to sustained stress on the genetics of the trees, not natural selection.

    The use of vampiric here is in reference to the stealing of blood or lifeforce from another entity in a completely parasitic manner. Vampire is a term commonly used in such a manner, including to reference leaches, mosquitoes and flies since you brought them up.

    You only argue the definition to try to make your point seem more valid.

  • Phoenix

    The photo in the article is extremely misleading. The photo is not of a stark-white evergreen tree, but rather of a (probably normal) evergreen tree. The photo was taken with an infrared filter, and a similar effect can be achieved on many plants using a lens obtainable from most camera stores for the tune of $5, and about 30 seconds of post-processing in your favorite photo editing app.

    This is clearly the case because the blades of grass (visible in the lower-right-hand corner of the photo) also appear stark white.

    The red tone to the branch could be the natural color yielded with an infrared filter, or could have also been added during post-processing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Phoenix: I think you’re mistaken. The photo, made available via Wikimedia Commons and used on the Wikipedia page for albino redwoods, was taken by a Humboldt State University student studying environmental resources engineering. It seems pretty unlikely that he’d fake the photo. And I’m not sure where you see blades of grass…

    – Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • http://www.mdvaden.com/grove_of_titans.shtml M. D. Vaden Redwood Explorer

    Articles like this may convey a mixed message. Some paragraphs include “parent trees”. But the following quote is contradictory:

    QUOTE
    When times get tough, the parent tree withdraws all support and the seedlings perish, turning brown. In times of abundant rain, they sprout again, flourishing. “They come and go, like ghosts,” Kuty said. “They starve to death and shrink back. Then they reappear.”
    END QUOTE

    The typical albino redwood is not a seedling. Seedlings come from seeds that germinated. That’s not how this works. These are actually connected as a part of the main tree.

    Any energy or moisture that they draw would be very minor and inconsequential. About 95% of a plant comes from water and atmosphere. Barely 5% from the soil. So the small amount of moisture is the main substance used by the small albino redwoods.

    MDV

  • http://www.mdvaden.com/grove_of_titans.shtml M. D. Vaden Redwood Explorer

    Also …

    @ Eliza Strickland / Online News Editor

    Your reply @ Phoenix sounds correct. I’ve taken photos of albino redwood trees and albino redwood foliage. It can look very white. The photo is almost certainly a real photograph. I’ve seen it at Wikimedia Commons several times. I see what Phoenix was calling blades of grass, but the lines are so faded, they could easily be twigs, lichens or other vegetation.

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  • Mike

    Just a quick clarification: the relationship between the two trees is neither vampiric (though it does seem to sparkle, like those rediculous Twilight vamps :) ), nor parasitic–as the “paarent” tree does not appear to be negatively impacted. This is actually a symbiotic relationship known as commensalism, a relationship where one organism benefits while the other is not significantly harmed. :)

  • Rawl

    There must be many more than 25 of these trees–I know of at least ten in my local neighborhood. Many people are reluctant to reveal their location because there are unscrupulous individuals who like to go out at Christmastime and cut the albino branches to make wreaths that they then sell. Still, they may be one of the rarest plants on earth, since redwoods are listed as threatened and there are only, say, 100 of them. Characterizing them as “creepy monsters” is just dumb.

  • Simon Bennett

    One of the most interesting natural phenomenon I have seen in a long time 

  • Pieholefriends

    Redwoods take care of each other through their root systems, and will even send antibodies to each other, it’s like Avatar stuff, not like vampire stuff. 

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  • J.P.

    to the person who comment about the “vampire” issues you need to have a star trek triple facepalm for that cause you’re just being foolish like the person “someoneSmarterthanyou” vampirism has nothing to do with bats or blood, vampirism can be roughly defined as a parasitic relationship in which a specific organism in one way or another “feeds” from those around it to survive, vampirism is a simple parasitic relationship in nature, with a fancy name

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