Invasive Walking Tree Steals Hunter’s Kill near Black Fern Canyon

by Graham Robert Scott, 3.24am May 10th 2021

BEAR CREEK—Bow-hunter Logan Dupree tracked a wounded elk nearly a mile before he found the beast on its side, bloody stump of his arrow protruding from its ribs—with a massive tree root curled about its body. 


“I just stared and stared,” he said. “I thought for a moment that maybe the root was exposed above the ground and the bull [elk] was taking shelter under it, but the grip of the root seemed so tight, I just couldn’t figure out how it had happened.”


The bull elk’s eyes were wide and white, darting about feverishly with fear.


Then the root constricted. The elk’s eyes rolled back as its rib-cage collapsed.


“It sounded like branches crushed under car tires, but there was this wet, squelchy sound to it, too,” Dupree said. “And then another root moved, mowing through brush, sliding over the forest floor like it was feeling the terrain, like a starfish’s legs when it’s walking. It grabbed hold of a lip of granite, hard enough to crack it, and then the whole tree trunk above it groaned forward a few inches.”


Dupree is not the only or even first American to see such a tree in action. A growing number of hunters, botanists, ecologists, and USDA officials say they’ve seen vampire larch, or Larix mobili, trees on our side of the Canadian border, in some cases quite a bit south of the border. The trees may be slow, but they’re persistent. The invasive species, believed to have originated in China but brought to Canada by a fan of exotic animals, has now been sighted in four states. 


“It’s one of the most worrying invasive species we’re tracking,” said Aimee Vaskis, an associate professor of botany and plant pathology at the University of California, Riverside. Vaskis serves as a consultant with the U.S. National Invasive Species Information Center, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It moves slowly, but if you move more slowly, it doesn’t really matter how big you are, it can absolutely eat you.” 


Dupree said the tree closely resembled the western larch, a common conifer tree along the mountainous northern border, though its coloration was redder and the moving, above-ground roots were “definitely different.” 


“Frankly,” he said, “something that big and that wooden shouldn’t be moving on its own. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.” 

 

“Lots of plants move,” Vaskis explained. “Some more slowly than others. There are plants that move toward the light. There are plants that move toward water. There are plants that move to catch and eat food, the most recognizable example of which is the Venus flytrap.”


Larix mobili moves on a set of above-ground roots for what experts call “strolling,” but it has another set of slower, retractable roots below that for tapping water and other nutrients, Vaskis said. “It’s the upper roots that kill animals, but it’s the lower roots that feed on meat. They stab into prey from below, rather than from above.”


Conservation experts may be sympathetic to wildlife in general, but they don’t roll out a red carpet for invasive species. When species move, they can upset entire ecosystems. Some invasive insects, like lantern flies, have prompted federal biologists to investigate natural predators that could be brought to the United States to check their expansion. Pythons released into the waters off Florida now threaten to spread along most of the North American coast. In response, hunters have essentially been given free license to kill them.

 
“We haven’t made a formal declaration yet, but we’ll probably do something like that with the vampire larch trees,” Vaskis said. 


If they give the go-ahead, would Dupree the bow-hunter like a shot at a walking tree?


He shudders. “Fuck no.”