Giant Groundsels

Giant Groundsels

There are giant groundsels found at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa that look like a movie set of Jurassic Park.

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As the highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro itself is pretty outstanding. But as a free-standing mountain whose climate zones become progressively less like the ground-level landscape the further you ascend, Kilimanjaro is especially remarkable as an incubator for isolated, mutated, or rare species found almost nowhere else. One of the most striking of those species is the giant groundsel varietal Dendrosenecio kilimanjari.

Something like a cross between a burned-up cactus and a pineapple, these alien-looking plants can only be found on Kilimanjaro, and only above 14,000 feet (related, but similarly isolated sub-varieties of giant groundsel can “only be found” on a handful of other East African mountains).

To carve out an existence in such a harsh environment (that high up the mountain temperatures regularly dip below freezing overnight), the plants have evolved water storage in the pith of the stem, nyctinastic leaf movement (which means the leaves close when the temperature drops too far), a natural “anti-freeze,” and self-insulation through withered and dead foliage (part of the reason the groundsels look so strange).

Evolution is the name of the game for giant groundsels, both on Kili and other East African mountains. None of the species are precisely the same. However, it’s guessed that they all evolved from common groundsel around a million years ago, climbing higher and higher up the slopes via the slow process of windborne seed distribution (which would move the plants no more than a few meters at a time).

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