The oldest tree in the world may have stood for centuries when the first boulders were erected at Stonehenge, according to new research.
The ancient giant, an alerce (Fitzroya cupressoids) known as “Gran Abuelo” (or great-grandfather in Spanish) that towers over a ravine in the Chilean Andes, may be around 5,400 years old, according to a new computer model. If this date can be confirmed, it would make the Gran Abuelo nearly 600 years older than the current official record holder (opens in a new tab) for the oldest tree in the world, a Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longicornis) in California known as “Methuselah”.
However, the exact age of the alerce is still somewhat disputed, as to confirm this requires analysis of the tree rings – a method known as dendrochronology and the gold standard for determining age of a tree – and this data is currently incomplete. The data underlying the model has not yet been made public or submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.
Regardless of its age, the tree is in peril and must be protected, said Jonathan Barichivich, a climate and global ecology scientist at the Laboratoire des sciences du climat et de l’environnement in Paris, and a researcher who created the model.
“It’s in really bad shape because of tourism,” and the tree was also hit by climate changeBarichivich told Live Science.
Related: What is the tallest tree in the world?
How old is Gran Abuelo?
The Gran Abuelo, a conifer that rises 60 meters above the misty forest floor of Chile’s Alerce Costero National Park, was originally thought to be around 3,500 years old. But scientists had never systematically analyzed his age, Barichivich said.
“We wanted to tell the story of the tree for the sole purpose of valuing and protecting it,” Barichivich said.
So in 2020, Barichivich and his colleague Antonio Lara, professor of forestry and natural resources at the Austral University of Chile, used a nondestructive technique to drill a tiny core from the tree, which captured 2,465 years of age. tree rings. The borer, however, could not reach the center of the tree’s 13-foot (4 m) diameter, meaning many of the alerce’s growth rings could not be counted.
To account for the remaining years of growth, the team developed a mathematical model that takes into account how F. cupressoids grows at different rates, from a sapling to a mature tree. The model also incorporated variations in growth rate as a function of competition and fluctuations in the environment and climate.
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The team then used the model to simulate the tree’s growth trajectory 10,000 times, Barichivich said. These simulations gave a range of predicted ages for the Gran Abuelo.
The model estimated the tree was likely about 5,400 years old, Barichivich said. The absolute oldest the tree could be was 6,000 years old; there was about an 80% chance that the tree was over 5,000 years old; and all simulated growth trajectories predicted it to be at least 4,100 years old, he said.
“Even if the tree was growing very fast, despite all that size, it can’t be younger than that,” he said.
Another factor suggests that the tree is very old: a biological law known as growth-life trade-off (opens in a new tab), Barichivich added. This trade-off suggests that slow-growing species tend to live longer. And alerce trees grow incredibly slowly – even slower than other long-lived species such as giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) or Great Basin bristlecone pines , he said.
However, some tree dating experts have said Scientific journal (opens in a new tab) that they were hesitant to use modeling data to estimate the age of a tree.
“The ONLY way to really tell the age of a tree is to count the rings dendrochronologically and that requires ALL the rings to be present or accounted for,” said Ed Cook, founding director of the observatory’s Tree Ring Laboratory. of the Lamont-Doherty Earth of Columbia University. New York, Science Magazine said in an email.
While the tree has survived for thousands of years, its future is uncertain, Barichivich said.
The ancient tree has been encircled by a narrow walkway that crushes its last living roots, he said, and the myriad tourists who come to see the tree each year do even more damage when they step on it.
Climate change and the accompanying 10-year drought have also damaged the majestic alerce; a second tree growing from the top of the towering giant is dying, he said.
To protect the Gran Abuelo from further damage, Barichivich and his colleagues proposed placing a 10-foot (3 m) high netting veil around the tree to prevent people from getting too close. They also recommend moving the walkway much farther from the tree’s old root system, he told Live Science.
Originally posted on Live Science.