Tree experts stumped by case of ‘elephant trunk’

While out in the woods at Murphys Point Provincial Park near Perth, Ont., in late April, chief park naturalist Mark Read stumbled across a tree unlike any he’d seen in his seven years on the job.

“I thought it looked very much like a palm tree,” Read said

Though a common local species, the trunk of the American beech Read was looking at had an uncommon wrinkled appearance.

“I did pass the photos around and I had comments back that said, ‘That looks like an elephant’s trunk,'” he said. “[The discovery was] totally new for me. Quite amazing.”

The consensus among both Facebook sleuths and more seasoned tree experts seems to be that “rippled beeches,” while documented and possibly more common in the United Kingdom, aren’t well understood.  

No clearcut answers

While Read isn’t sure what’s creating the effect, he believes it likely occurred during the tree’s earlier development.

Paul Sokoloff, a botanist at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature and a member of the board of directors of the Field Botanists of Ontario, confirmed it’s a rare find, and a first for him, too. 

“My first impression was, oh, the bark is slipping off, which is of course not what’s happening,” Sokoloff said.  

Water stress, hormones or some other disruption of the tree’s outer later are all plausible explanations, but further study is required, Sokoloff said. Finding more specimens could provide a clue as to whether the cause is environmental or genetic, he added.

According to Sokoloff, the good news is that the ripples don’t appear to harm the tree.

Don’t miss the trees for the forest

Owen Clarkin, vice-president of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club and chair of its conservation committee, said he’ll spot the phenomenon every few years. He believes whatever’s causing the rippling must also affect the wood beneath the bark.

“I don’t think anyone’s really studied it,” Clarkin said.

Through his research, Read said others have sent him photos of similarly wrinkled trees from across Ontario. And while he now knows his find might not be as rare as he first thought, it has given him a new appreciation for the endless diversity of the forest.

“I’m always amazed at what you can find,” he said. “It’s a question of just keeping your eyes open, looking up, looking down, looking around.”