Of the 110 or so pine species, three cousins classified as foxtail pines live for thousands of years and hold many answers to anti-aging.
Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva), Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine (P. aristata) and foxtail pine (P. balfouriana) all live in the high mountains of western United States and have done so for the past 40 million years.
Great Basin bristlecone can live at least 4,862 years and its tree rings of living, dead standing trees and fallen pieces of wood have enabled scientists a continuous glimpse at climate in east central California since the end of the Pleistocene some 11,000 years ago. It’s unlike any other of the 80,000 species of trees on Earth.
The three species are grouped together because they have needles bunched together in groups of five and branches resembling a fox’s tail. And these species are very long-lived with foxtail reaching 2,110 years while Rocky Mountain bristlecone have been recorded at 2,435 years.
Tree scientists believe bristlecones and foxtails can live so long because of the harsh environment they call home. High mountain tops are very cold and dry, and very little is able to grow under these conditions. In addition, a scant amount of undergrowth with rocky soils prevents fire from creating a disturbance. In fact, it is so dry with about 10 inches of precipitation a year that wood-rotting fungi grows too slowly to debilitate these magnificent trees.
Unlike any other pines these three cousins have needle bundles that can all give rise to new buds, using them to grow new branches to replace those that die.
Winds of 120 mph blast ice crystals and rock dust wearing out bark and grotesquely shaping treetops. Tree roots, trunks, and branches have evolved in semi-independent sections so that when damage occurs the entire tree is not harmed.
Life at the top of the mountain is fraught with unimaginable hardships. The growing season lasts about two months. Needles are coated with thick layers of wax protecting moisture loss, and ice and dust damage. Like everything else about these trees, needles are designed for the long haul living for 45 years before being discarded.
Large, one third- to three-quarters of an inch long, seeds have oval wings twice the length of seeds. Cones mature after 26 months and seeds fall from the cone and “helicopter” to the ground.
Clark’s nutcracker, a gray, black and white relative of jays, harvest seeds and remember where most but not all caches are located.
These pines are all intolerant of shade, yet despite the fierce environmental conditions seeds manage to germinate and if they can survive the first 20 decades, they will have reached the sapling stage. I’ve measure a 3-foot tall Great Basin bristlecone that was 650 years old.
In order to be considered mature, a Great Basin bristlecone must celebrate its 1,000th birthday. It will be gnarled having porcupine girdles and frost scars along its trunk. A few structural roots will be exposed by hundreds of years of soil erosion and evidence of fine roots exhausted from mining the soil for nutrients, finally suffering mineral famine, are visible to the trained eye.
Unlike any other known living thing these trees and the ancient cliff cedars (Thuja occidentalis) of the Niagara Escarpment show no sign of the degenerative aging process. Many of them live more than two miles above the Earth yet they exhibit no mutations as they stoically enter their 48th century of life despite being bombarded by extreme levels of cosmic radiation. Gerontologists are awed that there are no signs of any chromosomal changes, including shortening of their tips as they age. They have classified Great Basin bristlecone pine as an organism of “negligible senescence.”
Great Basin bristlecone pines eventually die because they outgrow the very soil and rock that supports them. They are the undisputed longest living non-clonal tree species on Earth.
The only perceived threat to these ancient trees appears to be global warming as the temperatures in the 20th century across the western U.S. have risen between 2 and 5 degrees. In addition, in California the time it takes for snow on the ground to melt has decreased 16 days between 1951 and 1996. These extreme cold temperature trees are on the edge — unable to migrate beyond the mountain tops.
The voracious mountain pine beetles have sped-up their life cycle due to rising temperatures and droughts, and begun to lay waste to the high elevation Rocky Mountain whitebark pines; it may just be a matter of time before foxtail and bristlecone pines face their wrath.
The introduced lethal European fungus, white pine blister rust, has also benefited from warmer temperatures as it too has begun to creep up into the New Mexican Sangre de Cristo Range and kill the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines.
Treat your family to a once in a lifetime experience, visit heavens gate and the Great Basin bristlecone pines of Schulman Grove, White Mountains, California and touch the white dolomite sedimentary rocks, formerly the warm sea of 600 million years ago, that hold some of the answers to immortality.
Dr. Reese Halter is a public speaker and conservation biologist. His latest book is “The Incomparable Honey Bee,” Rocky Mountain Books. He can be contacted through www.DrReese.com.