Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, is a long-living species of tree found in the higher mountains of the southwest United States. The species is one of three closely related trees known as bristlecone pines and is sometimes known as the Intermountain or Western bristlecone pine. One member of this species, at 5062 years (as of 2012), is the oldest known living non-clonal organism on Earth.
It is a medium-size tree, reaching 5 to 15 m (16 to 49 ft) tall and with a trunk diameter of up to 2.5 to 3.6 m (8 ft 2 in to 11 ft 10 in). The bark is bright orange-yellow, thin and scaly at the base of the trunk. The leaves ('needles') are in fascicles of five, stout, 2.5 to 4 cm (0.98 to 1.6 in) long, deep green to blue-green on the outer face, with stomata confined to a bright white band on the inner surfaces. The leaves show the longest persistence of any plant, with some remaining green for 45 years (Ewers & Schmid 1981).
These ancient trees have a gnarled and stunted appearance, especially those found at high altitudes, and have reddish-brown bark with deep fissures. As the tree ages, much of its vascular cambium layer may die. In very old specimens, often only a narrow strip of living tissue connects the roots to a handful of live branches.
The cones are ovoid-cylindrical, 5 to 10 cm (2.0 to 3.9 in) long and 3 to 4 cm (1.2 to 1.6 in) broad when closed, green or purple at first, ripening orange-buff when 16 months old, with numerous thin, fragile scales, each scale with a bristle-like spine 2 to 5 mm (0.079 to 0.20 in) long. The cones open to 4 to 6 cm (1.6 to 2.4 in) broad when mature, releasing the seeds immediately after opening. The seeds are 5 mm (0.20 in) long, with a 12 to 22 mm (0.47 to 0.87 in) wing; they are mostly dispersed by the wind, but some are also dispersed by Clark's Nutcrackers.
Pinus longaeva differs from Pinus aristata in that the needles of P. longaeva always have two resin canals, and these are not interrupted and broken, so it lacks the characteristic small white resin flecks appearing on the needles in P. aristata. P. longaeva differs from the Foxtail Pine because the cone bristles in P. longaeva are over 2 mm (0.079 in) long, and the cones have a more rounded (not conic) base. The green pine needles give the twisted branches a bottle-brush appearance. The name bristlecone pine refers to the dark purple female cones that bear incurved prickles on their surface.
Distribution and ecology
The species occurs in Utah, Nevada and eastern California. In California, it is restricted to the White Mountains, the Inyo Mountains, and the Panamint Range, in Mono and Inyo counties. In Nevada, it is found in most of the higher ranges of the Basin and Range from the Spring Mountains near Las Vegas north to the Ruby Mountains, and in Utah, northeast to South Tent in the Wasatch Range.
Bristlecone pines are protected in a number of areas owned by the United States federal government, such as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of California and the Great Basin National Park in Nevada. These areas prohibit the cutting or gathering of wood.
Clark's nutcrackers pluck P. longaeva seeds out of the opening cones. The nutcrackers use the seeds as a food resource, storing many for later use in the ground, and some of these stored seeds are not used and are able to grow into new plants.
However, in many stands current reproduction is not adequate to replace old and dying trees and thus sustain its population. The species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list. An introduced fungal disease known as white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola) is believed to affect some individuals.
A specimen of this species, nicknamed "Methuselah", located in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains near Bishop, California, is 4,843 years old (as of 2012), as measured by annual ring count on a small core taken with an increment borer. Its exact location is kept secret.
Another specimen was measured by Tom Harlan in 2012 to be 5,062 years old. The identity of the specimen is also being kept secret by Harlan. This is the oldest known tree in North America, and the oldest known individual tree in the world, although a clonal individual, nicknamed "Old Tjikko", a Norway Spruce in Sweden is 9,550 years old.
Another specimen, nicknamed "Prometheus", was cut down by Don Currey in 1964. While taking a core sample with a special drill, Currey's drill bit broke off in the tree, which was a problem because the drill was special ordered from Sweden and losing it would have meant the end of his research. Who made the decision to cut the tree down to remove the drill bit is a source of controversy, but upon counting the rings in the slab sample with a magnifying glass, 4844 annual rings, at the time the oldest known tree was 4600 years old.
Among the White Mountain specimens, the oldest trees are found on north-facing slopes, with an average of 2,000 years, as compared to the 1,000 year average on the southern slopes. The climate and the durability of their wood can preserve them long after death, with dead trees as old as 7,000 years persisting next to live ones.
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This article incorporates text from the ARKive fact-file "Pinus longaeva" under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License and the GFDL.
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- Conifer Specialist Group (1998). Pinus longaeva. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. www.iucnredlist.org. Retrieved on 11 May 2006. Listed as Vulnerable (VU B1+2e v2.3)