Winston Churchill once said, “Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.” This statement certainly holds for the oldest living trees on earth, and for the oldest tree in the world. The oldest living tree on record is the Methuselah tree, an ancient bristlecone pine in eastern California’s Great Basin. Based on data obtained from tree ring data, the Methuselah tree is believed to be the oldest living thing on Earth. The tree is a staggering 4,853 years old, meaning that this ancient pine predates the pyramids! However, the Methuselah tree may have some competition for its crown in Chile, where experts have discovered another ancient specimen. Which tree is going to take the top spot as the oldest living thing on the planet? And what, if anything, could threaten these timeless natural wonders after thousands of years? Let’s find out!
The King of the Trees: The Methuselah Tree of the Great Basin
The Methuselah tree is in the Inyo National Forest, a remote location between the Sierra Nevada range of California and the Nevada border. Methuselah is the oldest of a small group of prehistoric trees called bristlecone pines, all of which are believed by scientists to be over 3,000 years old. The Methuselah tree itself is a staggering 4,853 years old and is believed to be more than the oldest tree, but the oldest living thing on Earth as well.
The precise location is not disclosed to the public, as the U.S. Forest Service wishes to protect this ancient treasure from threats of vandalism. This conservation effort is an important part of keeping this grizzled old man safe for generations to come!
The Secrets to the Bristlecone Pine’s Longevity
The exact age of the Methuselah tree was confirmed in 1957 by testing core samples and based on ring tree data. It was determined to be over 4,789 years old at that time. It is accompanied by a small group of other bristlecone pines, which also have confirmed ages of well over 3,000 years. These prehistoric trees grows in and around the isolated tree lines of California, Nevada, and Colorado. Bristlecone pine trees can handle the harshest conditions and high elevations where even the toughest organisms cannot. This includes extreme heat, cold, wind, drought, and noticeably short growing seasons.
Slow And Steady: The Bristlecone Pine is an Extremophile
An extremophile is a category used by many scientists for organisms that grow very slowly. This slow pattern of growth in the bristlecone pine species is the secret to the Methuselah tree’s centuries-long lifespan. The bark and wood of the tree are extremely dense and resinous, making it naturally resistant to invasive insects, fungi, or larger pests. This also gives the tree natural protection from the weather, as the resin and bark that dies off protects the trees living tissue. In incredibly old specimens like the Methuselah tree, one thin strip of living tissue is enough to connect live branches to the roots.
The Challenger To The Crown: Alerce Milenario, The Great Grandfather Tree
Recently, a new challenger to the Methuselah tree has been brought to the world’s attention. According to researcher John Barachivich in May of 2022, new data suggests that in a secluded valley in the outer regions of La Union, Chile, a Patagonian cypress tree may be waiting to take the crown. Alerce Milenario is also referred to as Gran Abuelo, or “great-grandfather” when translated into English. Alerce is also the Spanish word used for the Patagonian cypress tree, which is a conifer species related to other ancient giants like the giant sequoias and California’s coastal redwoods.
Upon hearing the news that an even older tree may be out there, researchers and scientists studying the Methuselah tree were skeptical but cautiously optimistic. Though questions were raised as to the accuracy of data, hopes are high that trees even older than Methuselah and Gran Abuelo may be discovered in the future!
How Old Is The Gran Abuelo Thought To Be?
The science behind determining the exact age of a tree is called dendrochronology. The process involves taking a thin sample of the core of the living tree, then comparing the ring patterns to samples taken from nearby trees. Based on the available data, the cypress is thought to be 5,484 years old. If true, this discovery could mean that another tree has taken the crown as the oldest living tree.
In the case of the Gran Abuelo, however, researchers ran into a frustrating problem.
Data Confirmation vs Conservation: Putting Gran Abuelos First
The tool used to obtain the sample, an increment borer, was unable to penetrate far enough to determine the exact age. Normally, scientists would supplement that data with samples taken from the root. In the case of this tree, however, Barachivich and his team were hesitant.
Alerces like Gran Abuelosis the second-oldest tree species in the world, predating sequoias but coming in behind the bristlecone pine. In the regions of Southern Chile where the ancient cypress lives, many visitors come to marvel at the ancient trees in the park where they reside. The scientists expressed fears that due to trauma to the root system from visitors to the park, taking samples of the roots may compromise the tree’s health.
Statistical Modelling: Using Surrounding Trees To Estimate Age
Instead, researchers used another technique to estimate Gran Abuelo’s age: statistical modeling. Rather than take samples of the roots, scientists used full-core samples of the surrounding trees instead. This process produces data on growth rate variation, as well as fluctuations caused by climate and environmental changes. The result was that the ancient cypress had an astonishing 80% chance of being over 5,000 years old, with an estimated exact age of 5,484.
However, without testing root samples, it cannot be confirmed beyond doubt that Gran Abuelo predates the Methuselah tree.
A Common Enemy: The Threat of Climate Change on Ancient Trees
In the end, Brockovich’s decision to respect and safeguard the great Patagonian cypress rather than risk damaging the ancient wonder is the soul of what conservation is. In his words, “It’s not the point to make a big hole in the tree just to know that it is the oldest. The scientific challenge is to estimate the age without being too invasive to the tree.”
Currently, the Methuselah tree and the Gran Abuelo face a far greater challenge than claiming the top spot as the oldest living tree – climate change.
The California Wildfires, Tourism, and Protecting Trees
The Methuselah tree is under an increasing threat from wildfire damage. The annual blazes seem to only increase in severity every year. These wildfires have already taken out thousands of ancient sequoias, cousins to Gran Abuelo with ages that are also counted in centuries. In the case of Gran Abuelo, increasingly drier conditions threaten the ancient cypress through loss of water uptake. In the case of both ancient trees, climate change is the number one threat.
Additionally, for the Gran Abuelo, tourism is also a real threat that needs to be addressed. Unlike the Methuselah tree, which is protected by the U.S. Forest Service, the ancient cypress does not have that sort of protection. Visitors can approach and walk around the tree, impacting the soil and potentially causing damage to the roots. Researchers hope that bringing more attention to the Gran Abuelo will inspire the Alerce Costero National Park to increase efforts to protect and conserve it.
If you would like to learn more about the world’s oldest living things, check out the articles below!
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- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methuselah_(tree)