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101 Facts About Ageing #18: The Oldest Organism On Earth

Posted on 26 July 2021

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As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an American sociologist, politician, and diplomat once said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”. And we wholeheartedly agree. A shared set of facts is the first step to building a better world with longevity for all. In that spirit, we are creating a series that covers 101 indisputable facts about ageing, health and longevity.

The oldest verified non-clonal organism (that is not a genetic duplicate of the parent organism) on Earth is a Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) in the White Mountains of California. Scientists measure the age of trees without killing them by carefully drilling out a core that allows tree rings to be counted. By this method, the tree (dubbed Methuselah) is estimated to be 4852 years old, meaning that it was around before the ancient Egyptians started building pyramids! Another tree of the same species is thought to be even older at 5065 years of age.

Methuselah - Bristlecone Pine - The Green Directory
Methuselah, White Mountains, Eastern California

There are two other closely related species of bristlecone pine (Foxtail and Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine), both of which can live to over 3000 years of age. Bristlecone pines grow mainly in arid, high altitude regions and compete poorly in less harsh environments. Their longevity is thought to be related to the conditions in which these trees have evolved to live. Bristlecones grow very slowly due to the scarcity of available water and nutrients, and are able to become dormant to resist periods of stress such as consecutive years of drought. The tree’s high proportion of dead and resinous wood provides a strong barrier to disease and water loss.

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