Weird Wildlife Wednesday: The Very Oldest Things
I was inspired to write this post as I was watching the Colbert Report and the Better Know a District segment featuring Rep. Jared Huffman of California’s 2nd congressional district. Colbert hilariously caught Huffman boasting that his district contained the oldest trees in the world, by asking him, “the bristlecone pine?” Rep. Huffman was thrown for a minute before clarifying that he was referring to the California redwood, and Colbert corrected him again and told him that the bristlecone pine is the oldest tree species in the world. My interest was immediately piqued.
Oldest Individual Tree
Not only are these trees the oldest in the world, but the very oldest bristlecone pine trees are literally the oldest non-clonal things on earth. For a long time, the tree called Methuselah that grows in the White Mountains in eastern CA was thought to be the oldest specimen of bristlecone pine with an estimated germination year of 2832 B.C.E. making the tree over 4800 years old. After its discovery in 1957, two other older trees were discovered. One slightly older tree called Prometheus was discovered in 1964 and tragically cut down for research purposes by some grad student. The other, unnamed, was discovered in 2013 and determined to be just shy of 5100 years old, making it the oldest known non-clonal specimen on earth.
Clonal vs Non-Clonal
Meticulous readers surely noticed the “non-clonal” caveat to the title and are, of course, wondering about the age and identity of the actual oldest living thing.
First a quick explanation: a clonal colony (say that five times fast) is a colony of genetically-identical individuals growing together and originating from a single ancestor vegetatively, without seeds or spores, not sexually.
This is why the oldest-individual-tree thing is impressive- there is something terribly romantic about a single individual tree standing throughout many millennia.
What this clonal colony loses in romanticism, it makes up for in sheer impressiveness. Pando, or The Trembling Giant, is a clonal colony of male quaking aspen trees classified as a single living organism with a root system estimated to be roughly 80,000 years old. This is a generally accepted estimation because tree rings cannot assist in calculations. The estimation is based on climate data, historical soil data, comparative growth rates and other complex data points. Pando is also the heaviest known organism, weighing in at over 6,600 tons.
If Pando is as old as the estimates say, it began growing as humans just began to populate Asia.
Poor Representative Huffman merely confused his superlatives. The redwoods are incredible trees and some of the very tallest in the world. One tree, called Hyperion, is roughly 115.61 m tall- taller than the Statue of Liberty.