By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO, March 12 (Reuters) - Northern California preservationists are fighting to keep a rare albino redwood, one of just 10 trees of its kind known to exist, from being chopped down to make way for a new commuter rail system, arborists and city officials said on Wednesday.
The albino chimera coast redwood, standing 52 feet (15.8 meters) high in a commercial district of Cotati, a town in California's wine country, also is the tallest and widest specimen of its type, said Tom Stapleton, a certified arborist who is leading a group of researchers and community members pushing to save the tree.
"To lose this tree would be an absolutely huge loss to science and the ability to study albinism in redwoods," Stapleton said.
The tree is a form of albino redwood with a genetic mutation that causes its branches to be striped, in a candy cane-like pattern, with a mix of green and white needles.
It stands 12 feet (4 meters) away from a planned stretch of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit line, a voter-approved passenger rail and bicycle-pedestrian pathway system.
Sometime after construction begins on the 43-mile (69 km) rail project in the area next month, the tree and its roots are slated to be removed to comply with Federal Railroad Administration safety regulations, said SMART spokeswoman Carolyn Glendening.
"If it were left in place, the systemic health of the tree would become compromised and it could topple onto the track," Glendening said.
Albino redwoods are a mutant variety of the evergreen species known as the California redwood, giant redwood or coast redwood, which is named for the reddish color of its bark and includes the tallest living trees on Earth.
There are only about 200 known albino specimens in the world, all of them in California, and they are typically distinguished by needles that are all white, Stapleton said. But the far more rare chimera albino redwoods have two sets of DNA that produce multicolored needles.
The first albino redwood was discovered in northern California in the 1870s, roughly three years after logging in the area began, said Sandy Lydon, an albino coast redwood expert and lecturer in northern California.
"They're often called the phantoms of the forest," he said.
Splotchy sunlight peaking through the typically dense redwood forest canopies makes the trees with colorless, almost transparent needles, hard to spot, which could explain why so few of them have been documented, Lydon added.
Researchers say a lack of chlorophyll, the nutrient that turns needles on the trees green, causes the albino foliage, but little is known about what causes the lack of chlorophyll.
Studying the mutant trees can teach scientists more about the redwood ecosystem and inform ways to preserve the evergreens, Stapleton said.
The Cotati redwood is the only chimera redwood mature and large enough to produce both male and female pine cones, which scientists can study to learn more about the plants, Stapleton said.
He said he is working with the rail agency and Cotati city officials to try to relocate the tree on public land instead of hacking it down. (Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Osterman)