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Question Your World: What is the Oldest Living Thing on Land?

Bristlecone Pine Tree

Humans live to be about 80 years old. In that time we develop, change, and interact with the world around us. Similarly all living things do their own version of that process. For some species that all takes place in a short lifespan, while others take an enormous amount of time. A remarkable species in California puts longevity into great perspective. What is the oldest living thing on land? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

Some birds live around 60 years, humans can make it about 80 years, and some tortoises can live over a 150 years. All these animals have a remarkable story regarding their longevity, but for the oldest living things on Earth we must look to the trees. High atop the White Mountains in California lives an incredibly resilient species of trees, the Bristlecone Pine.

These persistent trees live in some of the most inhospitable conditions on Earth. Most of the moisture is trapped in snow, ferocious winds could easily blow branches off, and the soil has just the bare minimum of nutrients required to facilitate plant life. Regardless, this is where these beautiful trees call home. So, how long could something live in these remote regions of inhospitable conditions? Pretty old, actually.

To put it in perspective, these trees have living since before the Greek or Roman empires were formed and they continue to live today. Some of these trees have even seen the sun rise a little under two million times. Reaching up to 5,000 years old, these bristlecone pines are a wonderful example of perseverance.

In terms of size they are not the world’s largest trees. On average this tree grows to be about 40 feet tall with a diameter around 10 feet. That’s pretty impressive considering they live nearly 10,000 feet up. These high up locations actually help these trees live longer, by eliminating fallen leaves of other trees, which in turn prevents the spreading of fires between trees. However, in the event that lightning does strike a tree, they have a process for dealing with that as well. When lightning strikes, the damaged area and the surrounding xylem tissue also dies and in turn reduces the amount of nutrients the rest of the tree has to devote to that area. This strategy helps minimize the impact of damage and allows for a higher longevity.

These ancient trees take the phrase “putting your roots down” to the next level. Their impressive story has been embraced by nature lovers from around the world. Regions that are home to the bristlecone pine are protected under the National Parks Service and are closely studied by scientists. These remarkably old trees give us a great perspective on longevity and the resilience of life.

To properly celebrate these awesome trees and their lengthy aging process, enjoy some fun quotes on the process:

  • “Aging has a wonderful beauty and we should have respect for that.” - Eartha Kitt
  • “You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.” - Woody Allen
  • “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.” - Mark Twain
  • “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” - George Burns
  • “Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All they have to do is live long enough.” - Groucho Marx