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The Methuselah Tree

Learn about the oldest living thing on the planet.The Methuselah Tree on this Moment of Science.

Of all the long-lived characters in the Bible, none beat Methuselah, who topped out at an impressive 969 years. But not even Methuselah holds a candle to the oldest living thing on earth: a bristlecone pine tree approximately 4,725 years old. The so-called Methuselah Tree, discovered in 1953 by the tree researcher Edmund Schulman, has amazed scientists and nature lovers ever since.

The longest-living members of the bristlecone species exist in harsh conditions in the upper reaches of California’s White Mountains. With less than twelve inches of annual precipitation and a nutrient-poor soil called dolomite, the rocky terrain looks more like a lifeless Martian plain than home to earth’s oldest living organisms.

Yet it is precisely the barrenness of the landscape that makes possible the trees’ longevity. Since practically nothing else can thrive in such conditions, there is little competition for water and nutrients. And since the trees are spaced far apart, there exists little groundcover from falling needles that may give rise to damaging fires. During droughts, bristlecones enter a dormant state, basically shutting down until the sparse rains continue. Finally, the density and highly resinous quality of bristlecone wood provides a barrier against insects and disease. In short, these hardy trees have evolved to endure at all costs.

Due to their Spartan existence, bristlecones are relatively short and squat, topping out at sixty feet. The oldest bristlecones may in fact seem barely alive: Methuselah has only one cone-bearing branch. Yet that branch is very much alive, as Methuselah has been for almost 5000 years.

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