Why mysteries surround the oldest tree on Earth?

The one who could be tree The oldest tree in the world – a Pinus balfouriana pine tree called Methuselah, thousands of years old – is hidden somewhere along the 7 kilometer Methuselah Trail in Inyo National Forest, California (USA). United). Even photos of her are rare – the internet is full of photos of gnarled old pines mistakenly labeled Methuselah.

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

Pine of the species Pinus balfouriana called Methuselah, which is perhaps the oldest tree on Earth.
Pine of the species Pinus balfouriana called Methuselah, which is perhaps the oldest tree on Earth. Photo: Gerhard von Muhlen/Grand Bassin Park

Over half a century of word of mouth, amplified in recent years by the Internet, has eroded the secrecy of Methuselah’s location in the Eastern Sierras. However, 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. .

Keeping as much mystery as possible has become essential to keep overenthusiastic tourists away from Methuselah and similar trees. But tourists aren’t the only threat: The West’s worst drought in more than 1,200 years has killed pine trees near Methuselah, and beetles threaten others.

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, with extreme heat, drought and an increased risk of wildfires.

Matthew Salzer, a researcher at the Tree Rings Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, agrees. “Current conditions for some trees are worse than ever,” 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 the tree is determined by taking core samples, with drilling tools that remove a piece of the tree about the diameter of a pencil, which researchers can use to count the rings of tree growth.

In 1957, after collecting initial cores from Methuselah, Edmund Schulman, then a scientist at the Tree Ring Research Laboratory, estimated that the knotty pine was over 4,600 years old. He also discovered that relatively small pines – most of which Schulman studied were only 3 to 10 meters tall – were older than giant sequoias, which until then had been considered the most durable trees.

Schulman announced the existence of Methuselah and shared a photo of the tree with National Geographic in 1958, piqued the curiosity of others. The Forest Service later stopped disclosing the location of the tree to protect it from anyone who wanted to take a pine cone or other memento from the ancient tree.

Salzer recently re-examined Schulman’s Methuselah cores and got a tally of almost 4,600 years, although some rings were difficult to register. It is claimed that a Methuselah core with more visible rings was later found in the lab’s tree core file, but Salzer and his colleagues could not find it. This has led to confusion over Methuselah’s age. Wikipedia and many other websites and publications say the tree is 4,854 years old, but the basis for this age is the supposedly “missing” core, which has never been scientifically documented.

Around the world there are legends of trees older than Methuselah, including the Sarv-e Abarkuh from Iran and the Llangernyw Yew from Wales, both 4,000-5,000 years old. Estimates are based primarily on local folklore and have not been verified.

There are also clonal trees, genetically identical trees that share the same root system, such as ancient Tjikko in Sweden and the Pando poplar colony in Utah. Although these trees have older root systems than older trees, the trees themselves are clones and often much younger than Methuselah and others.

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There were also reliable rumors of trees older than Methuselah. In 1964, a pine tree named Prometheus was felled by a geography student in Wheeler Peak, Nevada, and was later discovered to be nearly 5,000 years old.

In the archives of the Tree Rings Research Laboratory, the core sample of an unnamed tree collected by Schulman in the 1950s was found years later, showing an age of over 4,800 years. Tom Harlan, a lab dendrochronologist who 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 uncover what they believe to be the tree, but not yet. were able to determine their 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 huge and famous Patagonian cypress called Alerce Milenario, or Gran Abuelo (great-grandfather), is 5,400 years old.

As the tree is over 4 meters in diameter, the researchers only obtained a partial core sample, but determined the tree to be at least 2,400 years old based on its tree rings. They then used tree ring information from other ancient alerzas and computer modeling to calculate an additional 3,000 years.

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

Brown said a peer-reviewed study was needed, but he was skeptical that the modeling could accurately explain the variables involved. “We need more details before we can be sure this could be the oldest tree in the world,” he said.

Recording tree rings contained in ancient pines has helped scientists refine carbon dating and provides an important story of Earth’s climate. Trees can also offer information about the aging process.

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David Neale, professor emeritus and expert in forest genetics at the University of California, Davis, leads a team of scientists who have sequenced the genome of a pine tree over 2,000 years old. The team wants to study a theory that the tree will live forever if it is not 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 pine tree, can be instructive,” said he declared.

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 and his collaborator, Antonio Lara of the Universidad Austral de 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 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 lion in a zoo cage.”

Barichivich’s concern for the tree’s health makes it difficult to determine its age without models. While existing tools are too small to reach the center of a tree the size of Alerce Milenario, a longer tool can be custom made. But Barichivitch, who is Chilean, does not want to do this for fear of harming the tree.

Her grandfather discovered the tree in the 1970s, and her grandparents, mother and uncle worked in the park where she lives. Barichivich considers himself a protector of the tree and identifies with the indigenous Mapuche people and their concept of the “spirit of the forest”.

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

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

Salzer is skeptical of such stories, but acknowledged, “It’s helpful from a conservation perspective to say, ‘Don’t mess with the trees, or you’ll end up cursed.’ / TRANSLATION BY RENATO PRELORENTZOU

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