(ORDO NEWS) — The world’s oldest tree may have been standing for centuries when the first boulders were erected at Stonehenge, a new study suggests.
The ancient giant, Aleres (Fitzroya cupressoides), known as “Gran Abuelo” (or great-grandfather in Spanish), that towers over a gorge in the Chilean Andes, may be about 5,400 years old, a new computer model suggests.
If this date is confirmed, Gran Abuelo would be almost 600 years older than the current official record holder for the oldest tree in the world, the bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) from the Great Basin in California, known as “Methuselah”.
However, the exact age of the alers is still in some doubt, since it requires analysis of the rings of the tree to confirm it – a technique known as dendrochronology, which is the gold standard for determining the 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 age, the tree is in danger and needs to be protected, said Jonathan Baricivic, a climate and global environmental scientist at the Laboratory for Climate and Environmental Sciences in Paris and the researcher who created the model.
“It’s really in a bad state because of tourism,” and the tree has also been affected by climate change, Baricivic said in an interview with Live Science.
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How old is Gran Abuelo?
Gran Abuelo, a coniferous tree that towers 196 feet (60 meters) above the foggy forest floor in Chile’s Alerce Costero National Park, was originally thought to be about 3,500 years old. But scientists have never analyzed his age systematically, Baricivic said.
“We wanted to tell the story of this tree for the sole purpose of giving it value and protecting it,” Baricivic said.
So in 2020, Baricivic and his colleague Antonio Lara, professor of forestry and natural resources at Chile’s Austral University, used a non-destructive method to drill a tiny core from a tree that captured 2,465 tree rings.
However, the drill was unable to reach the center of the tree, 13 feet (4 m) in diameter, meaning that the many growth rings of the alerza tree could not be counted.
To account for the remaining years of growth, the team developed a mathematical model that allowed for F. cupressoides to grow at different rates from seedling to mature tree. The model also took into account changes in growth rates due to competition and fluctuations in the environment and climate.
The team then used the model to simulate the tree’s growth path 10,000 times, Baricivic said. These simulations produced a range of predicted ages for the Gran Abuelo.
The model estimates that the tree is likely to be around 5,400 years old, Baricivic explained. According to him, the absolute age of the tree could be 6,000 years; the probability that a tree is over 5,000 years old is about 80 percent; and all modeled growth trajectories predicted the tree to be at least 4,100 years old.
“Even if the tree grew very fast, at this size it cannot be younger than this age,” he said.
The fact that the tree is very old is indicated by another factor: a biological law known as the ratio of growth and lifespan, added Baricivic. This trade-off suggests that slow growing species live longer.
And Alersa 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 told Science Magazine that they are wary of using simulation data to estimate a tree’s age.
“The ONLY way to reliably determine the age of a tree is by dendrochronological ring counting, and that requires ALL rings to be present or counted,” said Ed Cooke, founding director of the Tree Ring Laboratory at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York City. , in an email to Science Magazine.
Tree in danger of extinction
Although the tree has survived for millennia, its future is in doubt, Baricivic said.
According to him, the ancient tree was surrounded by a narrow footpath with a platform that crushed its last living roots, and the numerous tourists who come to see the tree every year cause even more damage when they walk on it.
Climate change and the accompanying 10-year drought have also taken their toll on the majestic alersa; the second tree growing atop the towering giant is now dying, he said.
To protect Gran Abuelo from further damage, Baricivic and his colleagues proposed installing a 10-foot-high (3-metre) mesh curtain around the tree to prevent people from getting too close. They also recommend moving the walkway much further away from the tree’s ancient root system.
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