The Oldest Living Tree Tells All

Neatorama readers know that the bristlecone pine tree is the oldest non-clonal living species (clonal tree species reproduce by spreading and splitting, sort of like bacteria, but older parts eventually die off). How did we first find this out? In 1964, Donald Rusk Currey, a graduate student of geology, discovered the tremendous age of a Great Basin bristlecone pine, after he had it cut down.  

By the time of Currey’s survey, trees were typically dated using core samples taken with a hollow threaded bore screwed into a tree’s trunk. No larger than a soda straw, these cores then received surface preparations in a lab to make them easier to read under a microscope. While taking core samples from the Prometheus tree, which Currey labeled WPN-114, his boring bit snapped in the bristlecone’s dense wood. After requesting assistance from the Forest Service, a team was sent to fell the tree using chainsaws. Only days later, when Currey individually counted each of the tree’s rings, did he realize the gravity of his act.

Currey downplayed the discovery in a dry essay for Ecology magazine in 1965, in which he stated, “Allowing for the likelihood of missing rings and for the 100-inch height of the innermost counted ring, it may be tentatively concluded that WPN-114 began growing about 4,900 years ago.” Though its exact age is still debated, the Prometheus tree was certainly the oldest single tree scientists had ever encountered.

The Prometheus tree’s felling made it doubly symbolic, as the myth of its namesake captures both the human hunger for knowledge and the unintended negative consequences that often result from this desire. Though members of the scientific community and press were outraged that the tree was killed, Currey’s mistake ultimately provided the impetus to establish Great Basin National Park to protect the bristlecones. The death of the Prometheus tree also helped to change our larger perception of trees as an infinitely replenishing resource. “It’s not going to happen again,” says Shoettle. “But it wasn’t something that I think they struggled with at the time, because it was just a tree, and the mindset was that trees were a renewable resource and they would grow back. And it didn’t seem like it was any particularly special tree.”

Collector's Weekly tells the whole story of Prometheus, plus the science of tree dating, and theories on why the bristlecone lives so long. Link

(Image credit: Nick Turland)

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Scientist man says, "I'm simply going to take a core sample to count the rings. It won't hurt the tree at all. Now the chain saw, that might cause a problem." Typical human hubris. "I will lay waste to whatever I choose, so I can write a paper about it."
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