5,400-Year-Old Cypress Could Soon Be Identified As The World’s Oldest Tree

Great Grandfather, a giant cypress tree, could be about to claim the world record.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Science Writer

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

A man looks over a balcony at the giant trunk of Great Grandfather, surrounded by other trees.

Great Grandfather may be about to become recognized as the oldest tree on the planet. But how do scientists determine its age? Image credit: MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

Deep in a protected ancient forest in southern Chile sits an enormous tree that has existed for thousands of years. Now the “Great Grandfather” tree could soon be recognized as the world’s oldest tree.

The Great Grandfather (Gran Abuelo), or Alerce Milenario, is a remarkable specimen. It is an alerce tree, a Patagonian Cypress tree from the species Fitzroya cupressoides, which is native to Chile and Southern Argentina. This particular example has a trunk that measures 4 meters in diameter (around 13 feet), and is 28 meters tall and probably started its life at the time when humans were first inventing writing. 


It is sheltered in a cool, moist ravine that has protected it from various threats – forest fires and loggers – that have cleared away many of its relatives and others of its kind over the years. Now the tree has become wizened and gnarled; it is home to mosses and lichens, as well as smaller trees that have started to grow in its crevices. 

This marvelous survivor is also extremely valuable to science as it may well contain information related to climate change and how the Earth has adapted to changing conditions over the centuries. 

"It's a survivor, there are no others that have had the opportunity to live so long," Antonio Lara, a researcher at Austral University and Chile's center for climate science and resilience, told AFP. Lara is part of the team of researchers measuring the tree’s age. 

According to Lara's colleague, Jonathan Barichivich, a Chilean environmental scientist who works at the Climate and Environmental Science Laboratory in Paris, Great Grandfather is over 5,000 years old, which makes it a century older than the current title holder - Methuselah, a 4,853 year-old bristlecone pine located in California. 


It's claimed that Barichivich's grandfather discovered Alerce Milenario in the 1970s, while working as a ranger with his wife in the forest that is located in the southern Los Rios region, about 800 kilometers (497 miles) south from Santiago, Chile’s capital city, which gives the tree a personal connection for the researcher as well. 

In 2020, he and Lara took a core sample from the tree using a borer – a T-shaped drill that can extract a narrow piece of wood without harming the tree – and analyzed its rings. The sample contained around 2,400 tightly packed growth rings but it was incomplete as the drill could not reach the tree’s center. 

So Barichivich and Lara turned to statistical modeling using core samples from other alerce trees to help estimate Great Grandfather’s age. They combined this information with other known environmental factors and variations that can impact how trees grow – this helped them adjust their model to simulate possible ages that the tree may have reached by the time period covered by the bore sample. 

The results showed an 80 percent chance that the tree was older than 5,000 years old, and it estimated it to be around 5,484 overall. 


The study containing this data will hopefully be published soon, but it already has the scientific community excited. That’s because the information stored in Great Grandfather could shine a light on historical events, like forest fires and earthquakes, which can be detected in its growth rings. 

"The ancient trees have genes and a very special history because they are symbols of resistance and adaptation. They are nature's best athletes", Barichivich told AFP.

"If these trees disappear, so too will disappear an important key about how life adapts to changes on the planet." 

[H/T: ScienceAlert]


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