Oaks are part of our collective ecological identity. Wherever you are in the Northern Hemisphere, you are very close to an oak tree. Not only are they ubiquitous in most of our common landscapes, but ever since man has colonized the northern hemisphere, they supplied human societies with invaluable services, starting with the provision of food and shelter. Today they constitute worldwide resources of economical, ecological, social, and historical value. Throughout history and in many ancient and modern societies, they have maintained these values at the same level, thus becoming in many places part of the natural and cultural heritage. Reasons for their status in our ecological identity stem from their diversity and longevity. There are more than 350 oak species spread throughout the northern hemisphere. Since 56 million years the genus has radiated into numerous species adapted to extremely variable habitats, from swamps to deserts, from tropical to boreal regions, and from lowlands to high elevation in the Himalayas. Beyond the species diversity, oaks are reported to be hyper-diverse at the genetic level. They shared also several peculiar life history traits as hybridization and extensive gene flow that foster constantly their genetic diversity.
There are widespread concerns that trees and oaks particularly may not be able to cope with present and future environmental changes. Controversial opinions have spread in the scientific community, among foresters and the public at large regarding their capacity to respond to these challenges. But oaks have undergone more severe environmental changes over longer time periods in the past. It is time to examine how they adapted to these changes. It is time to learn from their stories to understand their future and ours as well.
I am a tree biologist, studying tree evolution, exploring the history of oaks and anticipating their future dynamics. I am conducting research at BIOGECO, which is a joint research unit between INRAE and the University of Bordeaux