You might have an evergreen tree in your home or workplace this month, but here at USGS, many of our scientists get to enjoy beautiful pines, firs, and cypresses year round in their outdoor workplaces! In this series, we'll explore what conifers are and how USGS scientists study them. To start: what exactly is a conifer?
12 Days of Conifers: Conifer Trees and How We Study Them
Conifers are trees that bear their seeds in cones (hence the name conifer). The vast majority of conifers have needle-like (e.g. pine or fir) or scale-like leaves (e.g. cypress or juniper). Most conifer species keep their needles all year, so we often refer to these trees as “evergreen” (larches are an exception).
Conifers are an ancient group of plants, splitting off from close relatives like ginkgos and cycads more than 300 million years ago. Before the evolution of flowering plants, conifers dominated forests around the world. One of the photos at the bottom of this post shows conifer fossils from the time of the dinosaurs!
Today, there are about 615 conifer species. Though we often associate evergreen trees with cold, snowy, forests, conifers can be found in all kinds of temperate, arid and tropical ecosystems, such as shrublands, savannas, and even swamps. Conifers include some of the world’s most iconic trees, including the tallest tree, the oldest tree, and the biggest tree by volume, all of which are found in California. But there are extraordinary conifers around the world—from California's redwoods to the South American monkey puzzle tree, both pictured at the bottom of this post.
Conifers are the foundation of many of California’s forests. They store carbon and provide habitat and food for animals and other organisms. They give humans shade and lumber and firewood and pine nuts and juniper berries. But many conifer populations and species are threatened today by climate change, wildfires, pests, drought, and deforestation.
USGS scientists and partners conduct research across California to better understand the ecology of conifers and conifer forests and the threats they face. For each day of 12 Days of Conifers, we are featuring different conifer species and research. Click the links below to read each part of the series:
How to Measure a Giant Sequoia
The Goldilocks Cones of Tecate Cypress
Pinyon, Juniper, and the Greater Sage-Grouse
A Tale of Two Conifers: Incense Cedar and Sugar Pine
Pines of Santa Rosa Island's Cloud Forests
Lodgepole Pines and Mountain Meadows
Where the Forest Meets the Sea: Seabirds, Conifers, and Wildfire
Bonus: Spiky Leaves Aren't Just For Conifers