Isn't nature incredible? Have you ever noticed how certain flowers reappear at the same time every year? They seem to spring from the ground overnight!
Have you ever planted a tree, though? If you have, you probably know that it doesn't grow quickly like a flower or a stalk of corn. To the contrary, most trees grow quite slowly, only reaching great heights after many, many years.
In fact, take a look at the trees you see around you. Would you believe they're probably some of the oldest living organisms you could find? Depending upon where you live, the trees in your area could be hundreds — or even thousands! — of years old!
Thousands of years? Yes, it's true. Trees are built to survive longer than most living organisms. Unless they're attacked by disease, fire, or lightning — or an axe! — trees can live for centuries and centuries.
Knowing this, scientists have looked for the oldest trees that they can find. These oldest specimens can provide scientists with insights into how living organisms can survive through good and bad times and outlive us all.
So what is the oldest tree in the world? Scientists currently believe it's an ancient bristlecone pine named Methuselah (named after the oldest person in the Bible). Just how old is Methuselah? Tests show it to be over 4,840 years old!
Can you imagine that? Just count back almost 5,000 years into the past. Methuselah started growing in approximately 3,000 B.C. That's about the time that ancient Egyptians were inventing the first systems of writing. Think about all of human history that has taken place in the last 5,000 years. Methuselah has stood through it all!
Methuselah stands in the Inyo National Forest in California's White Mountains. Its exact location, though, is kept a secret to protect it from vandals. Guests can visit the “Methuselah Grove" in Inyo National Forest, but they simply have to guess at which tree Methuselah might be.
Methuselah wasn't always the oldest tree in the world, though. An even older bristlecone pine named Prometheus was over 5,000 years old when it was cut down in Nevada by a U.S. Forest Service graduate student in 1964.
How can you tell how old a tree is? If you know much about trees, you know that you can count their rings to determine their age. Back in 1964, the graduate student who cut down Prometheus did so to study the tree's rings to figure out how old it was.
Today, scientists who study tree rings — called dendrochronologists — use modern technology to take samples of a tree's core to study its rings without cutting it down. Tree rings are created each year when trees add new layers as they grow. Most of the bulk of a tree is just dead wood, with the outer layers being the only ones that are alive.
A special tool called a Swedish increment borer can be used to remove a core sample from the tree to count its rings and study the tree's growth history. Taking these samples does no permanent damage to trees. Dendrochronologists believe the slender samples taken from trees are similar to the slight prick you feel when you get your annual flu shot!