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January 3, 2011

Oldest Living Thing

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Inyo National Forest

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old bristlecone pine tree
image: National Forest Service
Some living things really might be as old as the hills, or maybe even older. Take the mysterious bristlecone pine. Seedlings when the Egyptians began constructing the pyramids, these trees have perched for thousands of years on inhospitable mountainsides that seem bent on destroying them. Yet, they’ve survived unrelenting drought, fierce winds that twist them into eerie shapes and a scarcity of soil so severe their roots barely catch earth.

So, what’s the trees’ secret? That’s something dendrologists have been trying to uncover since the 1950s. As shown on PBS’s NOVA, researcher Edmund Schulman first climbed nearly 10,000 feet up the White Mountains to discover whether rumors were true—that a grove of ancient trees were flourishing in some of the world’s most horrific weather conditions.
Schulman sampled the odd looking pines he found, took the borings to his lab and dated them between 3,000 to 4,000-years-old. Amazed, he ignored his poor health, trekking the mountains again and again to extract more data. His assistant, Doug Powell, told NOVA that he thought a special reason lay behind Schulman’s zeal.

“One surprising bit of conversation that came up several times…is that somehow some substance could be distilled from these old trees that the human being could somehow absorb and then be a factor in the longevity of human beings,” Powell explained.

By 1957, a dying Schulman hadn’t discovered his magic elixir. But he did uncover something remarkable: a fifty-five-foot tall bristlecone pine he dated back nearly 5,000 years. Schulman had stumbled upon the world’s oldest living thing.

inyo national forest
Inyo National Forest
image: California Academy of Sciences
He christened his find Methuselah and since then, scientists who study bristlecone pines say the secret to their longevity is classic Darwinian adaptation. Methuselah thrives where others can’t by altering itself to its environment. High in the subalpine zone—about 9,500-feet to 11,500-feet in elevation—Methuselah doesn’t battle for food since virtually nothing else lives there. What the tree does endure is severe drought, whipping winds, and growth in a limestone substrate called dolomite that acts as soil but contains scant nutrients.

To compensate, these trees live the credo: smaller and slower is smarter. Their dense needles can live to forty and lessen dependence on nutrients by feeding trees slowly. Bristlecones store enough water for the following year, using it during a two-month growth season when the trees’ only strip of living tissue—Methuselah’s measures one-inch thick and six wide—grows a tiny bit. These adaptations ensure growth so slow some trees put on only an inch of girth every hundred years. Through this self-monitored conservation, the trees’ have the possibility of living infinite futures.

“Methuselah could live forever…each year it puts on incremental growth, both height and diameter, but it’s a perfectly healthy, vigorous tree, ” LeRoy Johnson, a retired U.S. Forest Service worker, told NOVA.

Recently, Methuselah attracted the attention of the Champion Tree Project, a non-profit that clones the hardiest U.S. tree species and others around the world to preserve them in “living libraries” for future generations. Methuselah failed to clone. Scientists say that’s because ancient trees like it lack totipotency, the ability of living cells in a tree to differentiate and become a whole plant. But plans are in the works to try again.

Somewhere in the White Mountains, in a secret location, the tree that lived during King Tut’s boyhood continues to thrive.

       email to a friend by Stacey Young

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