I am immortal, I have inside me five thousand rings
May 4, 2010 1:57 PM   Subscribe

It sprang to life sometime in the 3rd millennium, outliviving the kingdoms of ancient Egypt, it survived six of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and it's older than Judaism. It survived 5,000 years (give or take a few hundred), and was cut down in 1964 by Donald Currey, a graduate student in geography. He was studying the Little Ice Age (prev), and he was looking for an old Bristlecone pine in the White-Inyo mountain range of California (prev), as a record for climatic conditions from that period. As that tree, nicknamed Prometheus, is no longer living, the record for oldest tree goes to a tree from the same stand, Methuselah. If trees aren't your thing, there are quite a few long-living organisms of other sorts. For more fun and photos, join Rachel Sussman on her journey to photograph them.

Stories vary about the exact chain of events that made Currey infamous in the 1960s, but his legacy lives on, tied to Prometheus. One of the sections from Prometheus can be found in the Great Basin Visitor Center (bigger picture available on Flickr).

Prometheus was the oldest living single organism, but if you start including clonal colonies, the ages jump drastically. Pando (prev) is the clonal colony of a single male Quaking Aspen, encompassing 107 acres (43 hectares), and is thought to weigh 6,000 tons. Though a single tree may only live to 200 years, this stand of 47,000 stems with identical genetic markers has been aged at 80,000 years.

Rachel Sussman started taking pictures of the world's oldest organisms after a trip to Japan, where she was told to see Jōmon Sugi, an ancient Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica). Over the course of her travels, she's seen a 2,000 year old Welwitschia Mirabilis (prev) in the Namib-Naukluft desert, ancient Brain coral in Tobago, and La Llareta (or Yareta), a cousin to the carrot that is one of the few plants to live in the Andes, growing approximately one millimeter per year.

Final fun fact: Brain Coral can act as a record of climatic conditions, much in the same way trees do.
posted by filthy light thief (43 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, this is good stuff. Thanks.
posted by blahblahblah at 2:01 PM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I knew that tree, I first heard its story when I wasn't a teenager even. thank you for the linkful post.
posted by infini at 2:06 PM on May 4, 2010


Yggdrasil almost in a way, these trees are
posted by infini at 2:07 PM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


The tuatara can live well above 100 years. Henry, a tuatara at the Southland Museum in New Zealand, mated for the first time at the age of 110 years in 2009 with an 80-year-old female and fathered 11 baby tuataras.

That's...quite impressive. On both of their accounts.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:07 PM on May 4, 2010


For those who have JSTOR access, here is Currey's 1964 article in Ecology, which used the section of Prometheus to provide climate history (otherwise, the link is only an article abstract).

Also of note: my gathering of all this was triggered by jessamyn's comment about Matt "talking about how awesome we all are", wherein I saw a link to Rachel's blog.

Other lists of old organisms: Botanical Record-Breakers: Plant Trivia, Wired Magazine's Oldest Tree gallery, and another gallery of ancient beings on Ecorazzi.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:08 PM on May 4, 2010


Springing to live in the 3rd Millennium in itself isn't so amazing; I'm more interested in how the tree travelled back in time from the noughties to appear in 1964.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:18 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Awesome post.
posted by jsavimbi at 2:25 PM on May 4, 2010


I've always wanted to get one of those tortoises that live for 100+ years and establish it as a family heirloom. That's a pretty cool thing to inherit down the generations.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:27 PM on May 4, 2010


unless you're a tortoise.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 2:35 PM on May 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


I love this post, so much. Thank you, filthy light thief.
posted by Pecinpah at 2:44 PM on May 4, 2010


Why you bringing up old shit?

(Nature is awesome. It also terrifies me.)
posted by yeloson at 2:51 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Brain Coral can act as a record of climatic conditions, much in the same way trees do.

Funny, that. Much the same way that most geological and biological materials can be: microbes, diatoms, forams, any annually-banded coral, the fossil record, glacial ice, sedimentary records (including but not limited to glacial deposits, ocean and lake-basin fills), etc. All of which give us different (but correlative) proxies for climate over varied time scales to help make a cohesive, if not yet perfect, record.

But we don't really know what we're talking about or have any evidence for all this 'global warming' stuff. And those temperature data we've been collecting for years are unreliable because the scientists have been 'tweaking' them with 'corrections' for things like 'altitude' and throwing out some of it for things like 'instrument malfunctions'. And you really think the tree-ring and coral records showing a warming trend are viable data? Wake up, sheeple. The trees are lying to us.


Sorry, soapbox. Despite the death of Prometheus, I do love the story of Currey, and his work is (obviously) still relevant. Awesome post!
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 2:57 PM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


As full of awe as when I was 8 and saw the years marked in the rings of a trunk of a giant sequoia.
posted by bearwife at 2:58 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've always wanted to get one of those tortoises that live for 100+ years and establish it as a family heirloom. That's a pretty cool thing to inherit down the generations.

There is a spot in the Dakotas ("Reptile Gardens") that has one of these. My parents have a picture of me sitting on it as a little kid. This past summer, they took my oldest daughter through there, stopped at the place and the ol' tortoise was still there. No one's allowed to sit on him any more, though.
posted by jquinby at 3:00 PM on May 4, 2010


I've always wanted to get one of those tortoises that live for 100+ years and establish it as a family heirloom.

I have a sulcata tortoise which, assuming all goes according to plan and it stays healthy and happy, should outlive me by a few decades. Before it gets passed off to some unwitting family member, it's going to get to roughly 20 some inches long and weigh in the neighborhood of a hundred pounds. At that point we'll give it free roam of the house and outfit it with a tray to slowly shuttle stuff around.

"Stuff" being cats, most likely.
posted by quin at 3:10 PM on May 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


There is a spot in the Dakotas ("Reptile Gardens") that has one of these.

My older (and eldest) brother was a musician kicking around Rapid City after graduating from the SD School of Mines and Technology in the late 60s to early 70s and his steady job was as the custodian for the Reptile Gardens. One particularly brisk winter day he forgot to check to boiler before going home, and the heat shut off in the middle of the night, killing many of the animals. Glad the tortoise survived.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:14 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's funny that he ended up picking the oldest tree in the stand to cut down and had no idea of its significance at the time.

There's an episode of NOVA about the tree. I used to have it around here somewhere. I wonder where it went...
posted by wierdo at 3:27 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


wierdo - thanks for that link. I hadn't seen anything on the possibility of a tree older than Methuselah, keen!
posted by filthy light thief at 3:37 PM on May 4, 2010


I've always wanted to get one of those tortoises that live for 100+ years and establish it as a family heirloom.

A friend of mine recently gave to his son one of the two pet tortoises that he got from his grandfather (the other was stolen several years ago - who steals a tortoise?).
posted by The World Famous at 3:43 PM on May 4, 2010


I have no rival. No man can be my equal. Take me to the future of you all.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:44 PM on May 4, 2010


My favorite oldest living thing is King Clone, simply because it's the least impressive: just a circle of bushes out in the middle of the Mojave desert next to a dirt road.
posted by zsazsa at 3:46 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


"who steals a tortoise?"

A Turtle Ninja?
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 3:50 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


How do creationists who think the world is only (six? seven) thousand years old explain the existence of lifeforms that are older than they think the world is?
posted by FritoKAL at 4:00 PM on May 4, 2010


Once upon a time there was a tree
And she loved a graduate student in geography.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:01 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


How do creationists who think the world is only (six? seven) thousand years old explain the existence of lifeforms that are older than they think the world is?

They claim that Satan counterfeited these lifeforms, in order to trick us.

But for believers in evolution, it's just tortoises all the way down.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:12 PM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


filthy light thief: "the record for oldest tree goes to a tree from the same stand, Methuselah."

wierdo: "Yeah, it's funny that he ended up picking the oldest tree in the stand to cut down and had no idea of its significance at the time.

There's an episode of NOVA about the tree. I used to have it around here somewhere. I wonder where it went...
"


It's worth noting that it may well not be the oldest tree. It's the oldest known tree. It's actually quite possible that there are much older individuals scattered throughout the bristlecone's range. This just happens to be one that got cut down.
posted by Red Loop at 4:20 PM on May 4, 2010


Red Loop wrote: "It's worth noting that it may well not be the oldest tree. It's the oldest known tree. It's actually quite possible that there are much older individuals scattered throughout the bristlecone's range. This just happens to be one that got cut down."

I think they've taken samples from other trees in the stand to check their ages, also. That's not to say there aren't other stands of bristlecone pines with older individuals or even entirely different species with older individuals, though.
posted by wierdo at 4:24 PM on May 4, 2010


How do creationists who think the world is only (six? seven) thousand years old explain the existence of lifeforms that are older than they think the world is?

By denying well-established facts of chemistry and physics, like radioactive decay.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 4:50 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Stromatolites.
posted by bwg at 5:01 PM on May 4, 2010


How do creationists who think the world is only (six? seven) thousand years old explain the existence of lifeforms that are older than they think the world is?

I asked a creationist in my class about this issue, and was told that, in a nutshell, we can't be sure that we're accurately measuring these things. So just because radio carbon dating and counting the tree rings and digging down and analyzing the layers in the Earth's crust seems to be accurate, that doesn't mean that we know for a fact that those methods work. Perhaps two thousand years ago, trees grew a bunch of rings for some unexplained meteorological reason, and therefore appear to us to be 10,000 years old.

i replied with slow clapping
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 5:28 PM on May 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


A vegetatively reproduced stand of Huon Pine has been found and dated at 10500 years of ages.

Awesome tree.

Ginkgo is the real fossil tree, in terms of genetic survival. Been kicking around for more than 200 million years.
posted by wilful at 5:32 PM on May 4, 2010


wierdo, there has been more sampling in the area, mostly for crossdating purposes, but not all of the pines in that stand have been cored, and there are many other stands on many other mountains that could contain older trees. Bristlecones are one of the most studied trees in dendrochronology, but they are notoriously hard to accurately date due to missing rings and even missing wood. From conifers.org:
It seems likely that trees exceeding 5,000 years exist. They may never be identified, however, because exceedingly old bristlecones share with a few other ancient pines the ability to adopt a strip-bark morphology. In strip-bark trees, the bark has died back from most of the tree's circumference, leaving a strip of living cambium (and bark) that usually runs up the protected leeward side of the trunk. The exposed dead wood then takes the brunt of windblown ice crystals and sand. These gradually wear away the exposed wood, and in time the tree rings that recorded the tree's youth may be entirely worn away by this process
posted by Red Loop at 5:52 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


...did the BBC actually publish a picture of a very dead-looking Adwaita with this article?

(For some reason, that unnerves me a little.)

posted by mykescipark at 6:51 PM on May 4, 2010


The bristlecone pine forest is amazing. I didn't go to the stand with the really old trees, but to one before it on the road, and it's really breathtaking.

They're all very short, which surprised me, and there are still young trees growing. It was kind of strange seeing a sapling that didn't come to close to me knee and wondering how many times older than me it was.
posted by kenko at 8:24 PM on May 4, 2010


It was kind of strange seeing a sapling that didn't come to close to me knee and wondering how many times older than me it was.

Indeed, and moreso are the Llareta or Yareta, inhabitants of arid land where they might only grow 1 millimeter per year, so some (relatively) large mounds might be 3,000 years old, yet still seem tiny for such a lifespan.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:51 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints: "I asked a creationist in my class about this issue, and was told that, in a nutshell, we can't be sure that we're accurately measuring these things. So just because radio carbon dating and counting the tree rings and digging down and analyzing the layers in the Earth's crust seems to be accurate, that doesn't mean that we know for a fact that those methods work. Perhaps two thousand years ago, trees grew a bunch of rings for some unexplained meteorological reason, and therefore appear to us to be 10,000 years old."

To quote the introduction to the leading creationist paper on the topic [PDF]:
The great ages claimed for certain individual Bristlecone Pine trees (Pinus longaeva) and the Bristlecone Pine master-chronology, conflict with biblical earth history. The ages, however, are based on the assumption that the trees grew no more than one ring per year. Creationists have proposed that these supposed old Bristlecone Pines (BCPs), including the ones that make up the master-chronology, have grown more than one ring per year. If these trees did grow more than one ring per year, the conflict between the ages of these trees and the biblical record is resolved.
(Via Conservapedia, the "trustworthy encyclopedia.")
posted by Rhaomi at 12:17 AM on May 5, 2010


I think if you're willing to accept that God made the Earth a few thousand years ago, it's a pretty small leap to believe him capable of creating trees which already had rings in them (not to mention pre-decayed nuclei).
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:06 AM on May 5, 2010


Hi out there. This is my first MF post, having just been introduced to it by Matt Haughey at the GEL conference (thanks Matt!), and am so happy to see that my project, The Oldest Living Things in the World, is being discussed here!

A note on the Bristlecone Pine. Aside from the sad fate of Prometheus, there is in fact a living Bristlecone that is older than Methusela. Preeminent Bristlecone researcher Tom Harlan confirmed for me that there is an older individual living in the same Bristlecone forest as Methusela, that is approaching 5,000 years.

And a question to pose to you all:

One of the things that I am trying to track down as part of my project (which consists of continuously living organisms 2,000 years old or older), is the supposedly 5,000-year-old moss living on the Antarctic Peninsula. I'm having trouble finding any current active research, and need to find an exact location....any ideas?
posted by OLTW at 6:22 AM on May 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have family who live sort of on the edge of Bristlecone, and I've spent a fair amount of time in that park/forest. It's so lovely and desolate. I can think of a lot worse places to sit quietly for 5,000 years.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:41 AM on May 5, 2010


Howdy Rachel/OLTW, and welcome to MetaFilter!

In regards to research on the supposedly 5,000-year-old moss living on the Antarctic Peninsula, there is a user who is/was at McMurdo station (who joined in time for the 10th anniversary parties). You could probably ask them directly, or post a question on Ask.Metafilter, there are some crafty, creative, insightful and intelligent people who can help you on topics that might seem obscure or quite unusual.

I have family who live sort of on the edge of Bristlecone, and I've spent a fair amount of time in that park/forest. It's so lovely and desolate. I can think of a lot worse places to sit quietly for 5,000 years.

I was wondering, has the habitat of the Bristlecones always been so desolate? Some cursory searching and a quick bit of scanning lead to this article, which provides a possible change elevation of 13 inches per 1,000 years. In other words (if I read this right), those trees could have been about 5.4 feet lower when they first started growing.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:47 AM on May 5, 2010


capable of creating trees which already had rings in them

That's their credulous explanation for other incontrovertible evidence of the universe's age, such as starlight. But it doesn't work with trees, because of the fludde (unless creationists now want to claim that trees were able to survive massive flooding and a year and a half or so underwater), which they calculate to have occurred some 4500 years ago. (Related: Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World)

That's why they fall back on the "how do you know that annual tree rings/ice cores are really annual?" canard.

Creationism is ultimately an exercise in reality-denial.
posted by puddleglum at 11:28 AM on May 5, 2010


(also known as "Occam's Rube Goldberg machine")
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:39 PM on May 5, 2010


Reading the guy's paper from JSTOR, and the most incredible thing to strike me so far is that these trees have been around long enough to have been eroded. Only having a 19" wide section of bark (8% of the circumference, unless I misread) on the lee side. wow!

as for tortoises, it's all well and good until Susie the Fourth has a deadly turtle allergy.
posted by rubah at 8:16 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


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