The Oldest Living Organism

Posted by M ws On Wednesday, February 8, 2012 0 comments
Wikipedia has many interesting articles. This evening, I came across this article about the oldest tree in the world. According to Wikipedia:

Prometheus (aka WPN-114) was the oldest known non-clonal organism, a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) tree growing near the tree line on Wheeler Peak in eastern Nevada, United States. The tree, which was at least 4862 years old and possibly more than 5000 years, was cut down in 1964 by a graduate student and United States Forest Service personnel for research purposes.

The people involved did not know of its world-record age before the cutting. However, the circumstances and decision-making process leading to the felling of the tree remain controversial; not all of the basic facts are agreed upon by all involved. The name of the tree refers to the mythological figure Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. The designation WPN-114 was given by the original researcher, Donald Rusk Currey, and refers to the 114th tree sampled by him for his research in Nevada's White Pine County.

Prometheus was a living member of a population of bristlecone pine trees growing near the tree line on the lateral moraine of a former glacier on Wheeler Peak, in Great Basin National Park, eastern Nevada. Wheeler Peak is the highest mountain in the Snake Range, and the highest mountain entirely within the state of Nevada.

The bristlecone pine population on this mountain is divided into at least two distinct sub-populations, one of which is accessible by a popular interpretive trail. Prometheus, however, grew in an area reachable only by off-trail hiking. In either 1958 or 1961, a group of naturalists who admired the grove in which the tree grew gave names to a number of the largest or most distinctive trees, including Prometheus.

Currey originally aged the tree at, minimally, 4844 years. A few years later, this was increased to 4862 years by Donald Graybill of the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. However, these ring counts were done on a trunk cross section taken about 2.5 m (8 feet) above the original germination point of the tree, because the innermost rings were missing below that point.

Adjusting Graybill's figure of 4862 by adding in the estimated number of years required to reach this height, plus a correction for the estimated number of missing rings (which are not uncommon in trees growing at the tree line), it is probable that the tree was at least 5000 years old when felled. This makes it the oldest unitary (i.e. non-clonal) organism ever discovered, exceeding even the Methuselah tree of the White Mountains' Schulman Grove, in California by two to three hundred years.

Whether Prometheus should be considered the oldest organism ever known depends on the definition of "oldest" and "organism". Certain sprouting (clonal) organisms, such as creosote bush or aspen, may have older individuals if the entire clonal organism is considered.

Under this standard, the oldest living organism is a grove of quaking aspens in Utah known as Pando, at perhaps as much as 80,000 years old. However, in a clonal organism the individual clonal stems are nowhere near as old, and no part of the organism at any given point in time is particularly old. Prometheus was thus the oldest non-clonal organism yet discovered, with its innermost, extant rings exceeding 4862 years of age.


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