Bristlecone pine trees (Pinus longaeva) are among the oldest living things found on Earth today. One individual located in the White Mountains of eastern California has been determined to be over 5000 years old. Given these exceptionally long lifespans for individual organisms, these trees are extremely valuable to scientists studying climate chronologies using tree rings as markers. These records can be used to reconstruct precipitation patterns of the recent past.
Bristlecone pines typically grow in scattered, isolated groves at altitudes between 5,600 and 11,200 ft. (1,700 and 3,400 m). They also typically grow in soil of a composition that tends to exclude other plant species, giving bristlecone pines a distinct competitive advantage.
One explanation for the extreme longevity of these trees is the very high ratio of dead to living wood in the individual trees. Often consisting of a single strip of live wood running from the roots up to the living branches, maintaining just a small amount of living material reduces the demands of respiration and water loss, thereby greatly extending lifespan.
When it comes to long lifespans, there are other candidates for the prize of longest, but many take different life history paths to achieve their longevity. Organisms that reproduce by cloning, a natural process whereby an individual produces genetically identical offspring by budding-off new individuals, can collectively have much longer lifespans than an individual bristlecone pine.
Two examples of this approach are quaking aspen trees (Populus tremuloides) and creosote bush (Larrea tridentata). A colony of about 47,000 quaking aspens in the United States have been estimated to be 80,000 years old, but the above-ground parts of individual trees average a maximum age of only about 130 years. Creosote bushes grow in a manner similar to quaking aspen. The oldest known clonal colony of creosote is found in California, and is an estimated 11,700 years old.
But when it comes to the lifespan of a single, genetically unique organism, there are no real competitors to the bristlecone pine.
This photo was taken near Rainbow Point in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah using a Canon EF28-135 mm f/3.5-5.6 lens zoomed to 95 mm on a Canon EOS 5D Mk. III. The exposure was set to 1/500 sec at f/19 and ISO 800.
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