By Gabriel Popkin
Some 5400 years ago, about the time humans were inventing writing, an alerce tree (Fitzroya cupressoides) may have started to grow here in the coastal mountains of present-day Chile. Sheltered in a cool, damp ravine, it avoided fires and logging that claimed many others of its kind, and it grew into a grizzled giant more than 4 meters across. Much of the trunk died, part of the crown fell away, and the tree became festooned with mosses, lichens, and even other trees that took root in its crevices.
Now, the tree—known as the Alerce Milenario or Gran Abuelo (great-grandfather) tree—might claim a new and extraordinary title: the oldest living individual on Earth.
Using a combination of computer models and traditional methods for calculating tree age, Jonathan Barichivich, a Chilean environmental scientist who works at the Climate and Environmental Sciences Laboratory in Paris, has estimated that the Alerce Milenario is probably more than 5000 years old. That would make it at least 1 century senior to the current record holder: Methuselah, a bristlecone pine in eastern California with 4853 years’ worth of annual growth rings under its gnarled bark. (Some clonal trees that originate from a common root systems, such as that of the Utah-based aspen colony known as “Pando,” are thought to be older, but dendrochronologists tend to focus on individual trunks with countable rings.)