Re­searchers say fu­ture of old­est tree species on Earth is in dan­ger

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - Nation&world - By The Associated Press

FRESNO, Calif. — The bristle­cone pine tree, fa­mous for its wind-beaten, gnarly limbs and hav­ing the long­est life­span on Earth, is los­ing a race to the top of moun­tains through­out the western U.S., putting fu­ture gen­er­a­tions in peril, re­searchers said Wed­nes­day.

Driven by cli­mate change, a cousin of the tree, the lim­ber pine, is leapfrog­ging up moun­tain­sides, tak­ing root in warmer, more fa­vor­able tem­per­a­tures and leav­ing lit­tle room for the late-com­ing bristle­cone, a study finds.

Re­searchers com­pare the com­pet­ing tree species to a pair of old men in a slow-mo­tion race up a moun­tain­side tak­ing thou­sands of years, and cli­mate change is the start­ing gun.

“Lim­ber pine is tak­ing all the good spots,” said Brian Smithers, a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, who led the re­search. “It’s jar­ring.”

The bristle­cone pine can live 5,000 years, mak­ing it the old­est in­di­vid­u­ally grow­ing or­gan­ism on the planet, re­searchers say.

Forests of the diminu­tive bristle­cone pines are found in east­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­vada and Utah. They thrive in des­o­late lime­stone soil that is in­hos­pitable to most trees. They grow at high elevation, ham­mered by wind and ex­treme tem­per­a­tures.

The pun­ish­ing con­di­tions give shape to their twisted limbs. To sur­vive long dry spells, parts of the tree die and it sheds its bark, ap­pear­ing dead ex­cept for small sprouts of green pine nee­dles, re­searchers say.

Among the old­est and most fa­mous is Methuse­lah, stand­ing in the White Moun­tains of east­ern Cal­i­for­nia. It re­mains un­marked among its grove so van­dals can­not find it.

The bristle­cone pine’s dis­tant rel­a­tive, the lim­ber pine is also a hearty sur­vival­ist, liv­ing 2,000 years. Re­searchers say they found that the lim­ber pine, which typ­i­cally grows at lower el­e­va­tions, has be­gun to “leapfrog” past the bristle­cone.

The three-year study in­volved count­ing the trees newly sprout­ing within the past 50 years above the his­tor­i­cal tree line. Most of those grow­ing at the higher elevation are lim­ber pine, re­searchers said.

Smithers said he could not es­ti­mate how many bristle­cone pine trees ex­ist across the western U.S. They are not at risk of ex­tinc­tion, but they could be crowded out in some places where they have grown for thou­sands of years.

This re­search on cli­mate change’s im­pact on these two species of trees can be used to un­der­stand more com­plex forests with sev­eral types of trees har­vested for tim­ber, Smithers said.

Re­searchers at U.C. Davis’ Depart­ment of Plant Sciences and the U.S. For­est Ser­vice pub­lished their re­search Aug. 30 in the jour­nal Global Change Bi­ol­ogy.


Bristle­cone pine trees stand in the White Moun­tains east of Bishop, Calif. Their cousin, the lim­ber pine, is start­ing to col­o­nize Great Basin ar­eas once dom­i­nated by bristle­cones.

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