Why mystery surrounds what could be Earth’s oldest tree

By on October 16, 2022 0

What strength being the oldest tree in the world – a bristlecone pine named Methusaleh that is thousands of years old – is hidden in plain sight somewhere along the 4.5 mile Methuselah Trail in the Inyo National Forest in California. Even photos of this one are scarce – the internet is littered with photos of gnarled old bristlecone pines mislabeled as Methuselah.

“We do not give the exact location or give photos of the Methuselah tree, to protect it,” said Becky Hutto, supervisor of the Inyo National Forest Visitor Center.

More than half a century of word of mouth, amplified in recent years by the Internet, has eroded the secrecy of Methuselah’s whereabouts in the Eastern Sierras. Yet uncertainty persists, even among some experts.

“I have a vague idea which tree Methuselah is, but I’m not sure,” said Peter Brown, founder of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research, which maintains a database of the world’s oldest trees.

Maintaining as much mystery as possible has become essential in keeping over-enthusiastic tourists away from Methuselah and trees like him. But tourists aren’t the only threat – the West’s worst drought in more than 1,200 years has killed bristlecone pines near Methuselah, while bark beetles threaten other ancient bristlecones.

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These trees have survived hot, dry periods in the past, said Constance Millar, scientist emeritus at the US Forest Service. But she fears human-induced climate change could create a ‘perfect storm’ of threats for some of them with extreme heat, drought and an increased risk of wildfires.

Matthew Salzer, Research Scientist at Tree Ring Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, okay. “Current conditions for some trees are worse than they have ever been,” he said. “I think the species as a whole will persist in more favorable locations, but unfortunately many very old individuals may succumb.”

Typically, the age of trees is determined by taking core samples with drill tools that remove a piece of the tree about the diameter of a pencil, which researchers can use to count tree rings. trees.

In 1957, after collecting the first carrots from Methuselah, Edmund Schulman, then a scientist at the Tree Ring Research Laboratory, estimated the knotty bristlecone pine to be over 4,600 years old. He also found that relatively small bristlecone pines — most of those studied by Schulman were only 10 to 30 feet tall — were older than giant sequoias, which had previously been considered the most durable trees.

Schulman announced the existence of Methuselah and shared a photo of the tree in National Geographic in 1958, sparking the curiosity of others. Later, the Forest Service stopped publicizing the location of the tree to protect it from those who wished to take a pinecone or other memento from the ancient tree.

Salzer recently reexamined Schulman’s Methuselah cores and got a tally of nearly 4,600 years, though some rings were hard to count. Apparently, a Methuselah core with more rings visible was later found in the lab’s tree core archive, but Salzer and his colleagues were unable to find it. This has led to confusion over Methuselah’s age. Wikipedia and many other sites and publications list it as 4,854 years old, but the basis for this age is the supposed “missing” core, which has never been scientifically documented.

All over the world there are legends of trees older than Methuselah, including the one in Iran Sarv-e Abarkuh and the If of Llangernyw in Wales both are thought to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. Estimates are based primarily on local traditions and have not been verified.

Then there are clonal trees, genetically identical trees that share a root system like that of Sweden. Old Tjikko and the Pando Aspen Colony in Utah. Although these trees have older root systems than the older trees, the trees themselves are clones and generally much younger than Methuselah and other elders.

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There have also been credible rumors of bristlecones older than Methuselah. In 1964, a bristlecone pine called the Prometheus Tree was shot by a geography graduate student at Wheeler Peak in Nevada, then found to be nearly 5,000 years old.

In the archives of the Tree Ring Research Laboratory, a core sample from an unnamed tree collected by Schulman in the 1950s was discovered years later and was over 4,800 years old. Tom Harlan, a dendrochronologist in the lab who had worked with Schulman, discovered the sample but did not reveal the location of the tree until he died in 2013. But Salzer and a colleague recently used old notes to find what they believe to be the tree, although they have not yet been able to determine its age. As with Methuselah, the location of the tree is kept secret.

A more recent challenger to Methuselah’s claim has emerged in Chile, where researchers estimate that a massive and famous alerce or Patagonian cypress called Alerce Milenario, or Gran Abuelo (great-grandfather), is 5,400 years old. .

Because the tree is more than 12 feet in diameter, the researchers only obtained a partial core sample, but they determined the tree to be at least 2,400 years old based on its tree rings. They then used tree-ring information from other old alerces and computer modeling to calculate an additional 3,000 years.

Findings about the tree have not been published, leading experts to warn against proclaiming it the oldest tree in the world.

Brown said a peer-reviewed study was needed, but he was skeptical the modeling could accurately account for the variables involved. “There’s just more detail we need before we’re confident this could be the oldest tree in the world,” he said.

Recording tree rings contained in old bristlecones has helped scientists refine carbon dating and provides an important story of Earth’s climate. Trees could also offer insight into the aging process.

David Neale, professor emeritus and expert in forest genetics at the University of California, Davis, is leading a team of scientists sequencing the genome of a bristlecone tree over 2,000 years old. The team hopes to investigate a theory that the tree would live forever if it wasn’t cut down or killed by disease.

“We’ve been searching for the fountain of youth since the dawn of time, so any basic biological knowledge of longevity, whether it’s a human, a mouse, or a bristlecone pine, could be instructive,” did he declare.

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Environmental preservation also inspires research on the Alerce Milenario tree in Chile. Jonathan Barichivich, an environmental specialist at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in Paris, is leading the research. He said he and his collaborator, Antonio Lara of the Austral University of Chile, plan to publish a paper next year.

But Barichivich is more concerned with preserving the tree than proving that it is older than Methuselah. Whether it’s “the oldest tree in the world, or whether it’s the second or the third, I don’t care. It is one of the oldest trees in the world and that is enough to protect it,” he said.

These protection efforts are urgent, as Alerce Milenario has long been a tourist destination. Visitors wandering around the tree in recent years have damaged its roots. “The tree is in a very, very poor condition,” Barichivich said. “It’s like a caged lion in a zoo.”

Barichivich’s concern for the health of the tree is part of what makes determining its age difficult without models. Although existing coring tools are too small to reach the center of a tree the size of Alerce Milenario, a longer tool could be custom made. But Barichivitch, who is Chilean, does not want to do so for fear of harming the tree.

His grandfather discovered the tree in the 1970s, and his grandparents, mother and uncle worked in the park where he lives. Barichivich considers himself a third-generation protector of the tree and identifies with the indigenous Mapuche people and their concept of the “spirit of the forest”.

“The tree is giving up on something, and I don’t want to go and disrespect it,” he said. “There is a spiritual part. It’s not just pure rational science.

Tales of otherworldly protection also surround the bristlecone pines. Stories of a curse began after several bristlecone pine researchers, including Schulman, died young. Schulman suffered a stroke and died at age 49.

Salzer is skeptical of such stories, but acknowledges, “It’s helpful, from a preservation perspective, to say, ‘Don’t mess with the trees or you’ll be cursed.’ ”