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Methuselah, a tree that has lived 5,000 years… but how?

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Methuselah, a twisted, slow-growing bristlecone pine tree in California, was a seedling before the ancient pyramids were built in Egypt. Dendrochronologists have dated the tree’s age to be just over 4,850 years old, making it one of the oldest known living things in the world.

“Methuselah’s environment lacks nutrients, water, and oxygen. In other words, it’s the perfect place to grow very very old.”

The tree survives in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a barren “moonscape” where the soil is primarily composed of a limestone called dolomite. “Created under the warm, shallow, inland sea that once covered this area,” the nutrient-poor yet alkaline-rich dolomite makes it almost impossible for plants to grow.

But bristlecone pine seeds can germinate in the high pH soil, and so the trees endure without competition.

The Minute Earth video above shares this, plus a few other biological advantages that have allowed Methuselah, and many of the bristlecone pine trees growing around it, to live close to 5,000 years.

How do we know Methuselah’s age? Some background from Inyo National Forest:

“Researchers use a device called an increment borer to extract a small cross-section of a tree. This sample provides a look at each tree ring and enables scientists to determine both the age of the tree and the pattern of its growth. There are many trees in the bristlecone pine forest of the White Mountains that exceed 4,000 years of age and are still growing. Recent research indicates there is a living tree older than 5,000 years.

“Bristlecone pine wood that has fallen to the ground can remain intact for thousands of years in the cold, dry climate of the White Mountains. Using a cross-dating technique that overlaps tree-ring patterns of living trees with the still intact patterns of dead wood, scientists have assembled a continuous tree-ring chronology extending nearly 10,000 years.”

long-lived organisms
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