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The Oldest Living Thing On Earth

July 27th, 2017

Bristlecone Pine

A fascinating article by Marnie Chesterton on the BBC website about some of the oldest living things on the planet…

Mayflies live a day, humans live a century, if we’re lucky, but what is the oldest living organism on the planet? For scientists, accurately proving the age of any long-lived species is a hard task.

Under the boughs of a 300-year-old sweet chestnut tree in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum, confirms that trees are capable of outliving animals.

Proving this can involve some traditional detective work, as he explains: “First of all we can look at previous records, to find out if a tree was growing there at a set date. Then we look at paintings and artwork, to look to see if that tree was present. And old Ordnance Survey maps quite clearly show ancient trees, especially important ones.”

A well-known way of measuring the age of a tree is by counting the rings in its trunk: one ring per year of growth. It’s a process known as dendrochronology and only works for certain types of tree that have an annual growth spurt.

The obvious problem is that counting rings normally involves cutting down the tree.

Arboriculturalists get around this by using an increment borer, a drill that allows them to take out a core, and count the rings without fatally damaging the tree.

It’s a delicate art, and, Tony says, back in the 1960s, one scientist’s drill broke off inside the bristlecone pine tree he was sampling.

The kit is expensive, and to help him recover the lost instrument, a forester helpfully cut down the tree. Once felled, the tree could be easily aged, and was found to be 5000 years old.

“It was terrible but so much science came out of that opportunity, and since then, we’ve found trees that are as old, if not older,” admits Tony.

A team of researchers in the US keeps a list, called the Old List, of officially dated ancient trees.

They’ve found a sacred fig tree in Sri Lanka that is at least 2,222 years old.

There’s a Patagonian cypress tree in Chile which, at 3,627 years old, is as old as Stonehenge.

A Great Basin bristlecone pine in California’s White Mountains named Methuselah comes in at 4,850 years old. But the oldest tree on the list, an unnamed bristlecone pine from the same location, has a core suggesting it is 5,067 years old.

This time-worn tree has lived through the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. It was already established when the Ancient Egyptians started building pyramids…to read the entire article click here.

Bristlecone Pine

5 Responses to “The Oldest Living Thing On Earth”

  1. Fascinating, but stomach-churning to read about cutting down a 5,000 year old tree just so some scientist could get his expensive drill back. Welcome to the anthropocene era, indeed!

    • My reaction exactly! But the tree is now part of the body of knowledge that paleobotanists draw upon for their research. I just hope that Methuselah and the other surviving ancient bristlecone pine trees can continue living without the intrusion of humans and their destructive activities, because their longevity is a wonder to contemplate!

    • Well said… I agree & worry now how they’ve dated those other, older trees… probably by drilling core samplers into the tree hearts in the name of science… grrr.

  2. An expensive drill…what …are you serious..?..the drill can be replaced 100 fold …not the offspring of our earth mother…no replacement. ..!!!

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