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One Hell of a Tough Tree

by Jorrit Pinckaers

“I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues” is one of the many quotes of Dr. Seuss‘ famous creature the Lorax. Well, if the Lorax was to speak for a Bristlecone Pine he would need to take some time. Many individual Bristlecone Pine trees are able to live for almost 5000 years, making them one of the longest-lived species on our planet. Pretty crazy idea: some of the pines that are still standing strong as you read this started their life at the time the Pyramids were built.

What’s the secret to be able to live for thousands of years? Take it easy for one thing. Bristlecone Pines are most common along the eastern part of the Sierra Nevada in California and Nevada. Conditions there are extreme: high winds, freezing temperatures and dry, very dry soils to grow on. The pines survive in this harsh environment by growing very very slow. This conserves their energy and they’re not likely to suffer from a “burn-out” like many of us do.

Survival of the Fittest

Another part of their survival strategy is actually avoiding burning out literally. A Bristlecone Pine lives at lone heights, just below the tree-line and far away from competitors and wildfires. Yes it’s lonely at the top but hey it takes commitment to live the longest. Another tip? Be thick-skinned. A Bristlecone pine is gnarly-barked and grows dense wood. This makes it hard for fungal spores, insects and other would-be parasites to get into them. And they can lose almost all of their bark and still survive, as long as a strip of bark continues to connect their living branches with their underground roots.

Is there anything left that can disrupt the perfect setup of these trees? But of course, it’s us, humans. The current changes in our global climate result in higher temperatures, even at tree-line level way up in the mountains. In the past 50 years the growth rate of Bristlecone Pines at high altitudes has been accelerating because of this. Faster in the last half of the twentieth century than during any other 50-year period in the last thousands of years. This increase in growth makes the pines weaker and decreases their lifetime. It’s just not how they roll.

So what do Bristlecone Pines do? They seek new limits, way above what is considered to be the tree-line. They need to aim higher in order to survive, let alone become another 5000 years old. “Run forest, run!” Because when humans are involved, you can’t take it easy, you need to be stressed.

Read more about the importance of trees for biodiversity in our post about Treevember.

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