Chiricahua Mountains Flying Trees: The Interface Between Science and Belief

On the recent outing with the Portal Rodeo Hiking Club another Chiricahua Mountains Flying Tree was encountered, this time on the ridge just west of Barfoot Peak.  While photographing during the lunch break on the ridge line the multi image panorama of the tree shown below was captured.  Upon returning to the Painted Pony Resort and processing the images in commercially available panorama software the resulting image was produced.  Another burned tree bereft of its' trunk and appearing as a collection of limbs floating in mid air.  While the mundane explanation, the image is a purely a result of the software, is most likely the correct explanation, a more intriguing notion also presents itself.  The possibility that the image represents an adaptive response of  Pine trees to intense fires such as the one areas of the high country experienced this summer in the Chiricahua Mountains. 

Figure 1.  Flying Tree in the Chiricahua Mountains

To become a viable scientific hypothesis, based on the image of a Flying Tree, several key points must be addressed.  Primarily the application of the scientific method.  Observation, hypothesis formation, predictions, and testing.
One - Observation.  Panoramic photographs of floating trees were produced from 2 hikes in the Chiricahua Mountains.
Two - Hypothesis.  These images of isolated segments of trees are an adaptive response to high intensity fire and are a trees mechanism allowing it to remove itself from areas of high intensity fire.
Three - Testable predictions.
            A.  Flying Trees will only be observed in areas of high intensity burn.
            B.  Flying Trees will only be observed at the highest elevations in areas with the highest sustained winds.
            C.  Flying Trees can be observed between mountain ranges following upper level wind patterns.
            D.  If a fire related dispersal or escape mechanism, Flying Trees should be observed with seeds (pine cones).
            E.   Evidence of displacement.  Flying Trees on the ground should be evident on mountain ranges down wind, and not associated with stumps, indicating landing .
           F.  Evidence of displacement.  Flying Trees should be found in areas where the species is not normally found indicating a missed landing.

Of the 6 testable predictions, 2 were tested.  Predictions A and B relate to location, areas of high intensity burn and high wind conditions.  The burn map produced by the BEAR team shows areas of burn intensity in the Chiricahua mountains, Figure 2.  The highest elevations of the Sky Islands in southeastern Arizona received the most intense burn and were areas with the highest sustained winds.  To test prediction A the location of the 2 Flying Trees was plotted.  Both occurrences of Flying Trees was consistent with high intensity burns (red areas).  Three roughly north south transects (2-3 miles in length) at 3 different elevations were also examined for flying trees, Figure 3.  A low elevation (5200'-5600') transect along the riparian areas in Cave Creek Canyon, a mid elevation transect in the interior of the Chiricahua Mountains (6000' - 6700'), and a high elevation transect (8600' - 9600').  Evidence of Flying Trees were only found along the high elevation transect, Figure 2.  No isolated flying pines were seen at mid or lower elevations nor were they observed in areas of lower burn intensity.

Burn intensity map with 3 transects and locations of Flying Trees (A).

Figure 3.  Topographic map of Chiricahua Mountains with 3 transects.
Wind speed generally increases with altitude and wind speeds with increasing altitude are available from a variety of sources.  In addition wind speeds at altitude may be estimated from lower elevation recordings. Based on the altitude differences between the lowest and highest transect the wind velocity is estimated to increase by 2 fold. Flying Trees were only observed at the windiest high elevations.

Predictions C, D, and F have not been tested.  Though preliminary data relating to prediction E (Evidence of displacement.  Flying Trees on the ground should be evident on mountain ranges down wind, and not associated with stumps, indicating landing) was gathered from elevations ranging from 4200' - 6900' in the Peloncillo Mountains.  Transects of similar length in Mouser Canyon, Gray Mountain, and Skeleton Canyon were all examined for Flying Trees.  In all 3 instances no evidence of Flying Trees was observed.  Although the elevations in the Peloncillo Mountains examined were similar to the low and mid elevation transects in the Chiricahua Mountains where no Flying Trees were observed.  No comparable high elevations exist in any range east of the Chiricahua Mountains and may require examination of upwind mountain ranges with elevations similar to the Chiricahua Mountains.

While evidence is presented that is consistent with the notion that certain species of pine have or have developed a specific flight response to high intensity fires, which may be either an escape or dispersal mechanism, the lack of evidence of  Flying Trees down wind cast doubt on the utility of the hypothesis and requires addition evidence.


  1. I agree. I was told the hike this week will be to Monte Vista Peak and the Barfoot lookout. Hypothesis testing will ensue at some point on the hike.

  2. Oh my, you had fun with this ... and so did I! Thanks!

  3. It goes from flying saucers to flying trees! I wonder what you will find on this weeks hike.

  4. Thanks, Even when the original idea does not work as planned the results can be adapted to another idea. I hope to find a flying tree with pines cones this week to test the dispersal mechanism prediction.

  5. I just don't understand... Imagination or science? Hahaha. I'll have to go hiking there sometime by my self so I can see some flying trees.

    -Oscar Valencia