Super Photosynthesizers: Methuselah and Prometheus

Let’s take a break from controversy and comic adventures and learn something new… well old under the sun. Today I’d like to introduce a couple of super photosynthesizers– Methuselah and Prometheus. No, I’m not talking about ancient humans and legends. These guys are two bristlecone pines that represent the oldest (non-clonal*) living organisms on Earth.

English: Big bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva)...

English: Big bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva), showing both live and dead sections, and streaked grain colors on broad trunk. Along Methuselah Trail, Schulman Grove of bristlecones, White Mountains, Nevada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bristlecone pines are found in the southwestern United States and the particular ancient grove Methuselah and Prometheus call home is found within the Inyo National Forest. Methuselah was sampled in 1957 by dendrochronologists**, and it was determined that Methuselah germinated in 2832 BCE. That makes this tree 4845 years old today. Think about that. Multiple civilizations have risen and fallen during its lifetime as Methuselah quietly abides under the sun. For reference, Methuselah had already lived for centuries before the completion of the Great Pyramid of Giza. While parts of Stonehenge may be older, it has been estimated that the first stones were erected between 2400 – 220 BCE.

Remarkably, this tree is still living and shows no signs of stopping. For organisms like the bristlecone pine, once they pass a certain size and age, there really isn’t any increase in mortality rate. Bristlecone pines are slow and steady types. They only reach heights of 16 to 49 feet tall. Large sections of bark could be destroyed by the elements of nature, but thin strips of healthy tissue will continue to connect to the branches above it feeding them via thin life lines. So, even gnarly-looking old trees that look more like stone are still living organisms. Another superlative fact about bristlecone pines is that the leaves (needles) last the longest of any plant, remaining green for decades.*** There’s no reason to think that Methuselah won’t continue to live for millennia to come if left alone. To keep it this way, its exact location remains a secret.

Prometheus is a slightly different story. It represents the oldest recorded organism on Earth, but it is no longer living. Its tale is a tragic accident of science. It was originally known as WPN-114. In 1964, Donald Currey was a graduate student studying ancient trees using their data to compile a glacial timeline for the area. Trees can be sampled with borers to extract the tissue necessary to examine their rings as one measure of estimating a tree’s age. This method allows scientists to get the information they need without killing the tree in the process. Currey had selected WPN-114 for his study and attempted collect a core sample when his instrument got stuck. Inextricably stuck. Without a complete dataset Currey’s study could not be finished. A helpful park ranger did him the service of felling the tree so he could remove the instrument. Only when Currey began analyzing the tree ring data did he realize the gut-wrenching implications of his act. He had felled the world’s most ancient living organism. (I’ve been guilty of a fair number of accidents as a scientist, but this example has got to be near the top of the list of monumental ‘Ooops moments’ in the name of science: and not in a I-just-discovered-antibiotics kind of way.) Prometheus was at least 4862 years old by ring count and maybe more than 5000 years old by other dating methods.

The nickname Prometheus is an apt one. It references the Titan from Greek mythology that defies Gods giving fire to humanity spurring on civilization in a tangled mix of progress and unintended negative consequences. In our modern example, our quest for data and ultimately knowledge resulted in the death of a 5000 year-old tree. While this wrong cannot be undone, outrage over the event precipitated the formation of the Great Basin National Park to protect the remaining ancient bristlecone pines. Prometheus itself continued to provide scientists with information about our Earth’s history and tree longevity. Specimens of Prometheus reside in the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (LTRR) at the University of Arizona.

As of 2012, another ancient bristlecone pine was discovered to be even older than Methuselah. However, no tree older than Prometheus has ever been identified. This newly identified ancient one continues to live, and its location is also a secret. This tree, for now, remains nameless, but definitely qualifies as a super photosynthesizer.

“For some, time passes slowly. An hour can seem like an eternity. For others, there was never enough. For Jesse Tuck****, it didn’t exist.”
Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting


* In this sense, non-clonal means a single living organism, which hasn’t divided itself to live as a multiple of itself. Plenty of other plant and animal species can ‘clone’ themselves by the asexual reproduction mechanism of infinitely dividing themselves. So, they never really completely die in the way we think about death.

** Scientists whose passion is for dating old trees.

*** I tried to trace back a number of references on this fact, going back to 1970. While a number of articles in the primary scientific literature state this fact, I was unable to figure out exactly how one measures the persistence of pine needles over decades. Surely, it is something that one would not undertake as a thesis project. Do they tag them somehow and check them every year for decades? Do they use some other known fact about pine needle growth and development as a marker to estimate their longevity? I have no idea. If anyone in this field comes across this information, please comment below because this has kind of stuck in my craw.

**** or bristlecone pines


Check out other old trees in this list:

3 thoughts on “Super Photosynthesizers: Methuselah and Prometheus

  1. Pingback: Oldest Tress | lilianausvat

  2. Pingback: Arbor Day: Thinking about the Trees for the Forest | New Under The Sun Blog

  3. Pingback: International Day of Forests | New Under The Sun Blog

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