Trees are living history. These witnesses to time include an ancient olive tree at Vouves on the island of Crete which watched empires rise and fall, and Methuselah the twisted 4,800-year-old California bristlecone pine whose seed sprouted before the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. Now, scientists have discovered a Patagonia cypress tree in Chile known as “Great Grandfather” or Alerce Milenario is even older. Recent analysis of a segment of tree rings shows the giant is an estimated 5,484 years old—likely taking the award for oldest living tree.
Deep in the Chilean forest about 500 miles south of Santiago, the cypress tree stands amid dense foliage, sheltered from the elements in a ravine. A member of the Fitzroya cupressoides species, the magnificent tree is 13 feet in diameter and 92 feet tall. Moss flourishes on its surface and smaller trees have even taken root in its cracks. “It's a survivor, there are no others that have had the opportunity to live so long,” Antonio Lara of Austral University and Chile's center for climate science and resilience, noted to AFP. With her colleague Jonathan Barichivich of the Parisian Climate and Environmental Science Laboratory, she took a sample of the core (interior wood) of the tree using a thin borer to not harm the ancient creature.
The team counted 2,400 growth rings in the section of core. However, they were not even able to reach the center of the enormous tree. Therefore, they turned to a computer model to complete the ring count. By comparing to other alerce trees and taking into account what they know about variables affecting tree growth, they came to an 80% confidence estimate that Great Grandfather is over 5,000 years old. This makes him older than Methuselah, the former record holder. This discovery is exciting, as ancient trees contain a lot of “records” of climate change over he millennia within them.
“The ancient trees have genes and a very special history because they are symbols of resistance and adaptation. They are nature's best athletes,” Barichivich explains. “If these trees disappear, so too will disappear an important key about how life adapts to changes on the planet.” Publishing their findings and protecting the tree from trophy-seeking vandals are the next steps. A wooden platform has already been built to help prevent the trampling of the trees roots. Certainly at his age, Great Grandfather has earned respect. While he seems to be poised to take the title of oldest living tree, many others around the world—including even more ancient “clonal” trees—must be preserved, so their stored secrets are not lost forever.