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Never mind the Leaning Tower of Pisa – this is the leaning tower of pines.
Cook pines are towering trees that were once restricted to their native home of New Caledonia, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Through cultivation, they have taken root across tropical, subtropical and temperate regions around the world.
The trees often have slightly tilting trunks. Scientists have now noted a bizarre pattern in their tilt: they lean south in their northern range and north in their southern range.
Matt Ritter at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo was writing up a description of the Cook pine (Araucaria columnaris) for a book on the urban trees of California when he realised that the pines always leaned south. So he rang up a colleague in Australia to see if that was the case there. It turned out it was – but this time the pines leaned north.
“We got holy-smoked that there’s possibly a tree that’s leaning toward the equator wherever it grows,” says Ritter.
He and his colleagues studied 256 Cook pines scattered across five continents. They collected tree data at 18 locations between latitudes of 7 and 35° north, and 12 and 42° south. The team estimated that the trees tilt by 8.55 degrees on an average – about double the tilt of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The trees also slant more the further they are from the equator in both hemispheres. “It’s a shockingly distinct pattern,” says Ritter. One tree in South Australia slants at 40 degrees.