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Ancient Cypress in Chile May be World’s Oldest Tree, at 5,000 Years Old


Alerce Milenario; Yiyo Zamorano, CC license

In 1993, a cypress tree stump in Chile was confirmed by tree-ring-counting as 3,622 years old—showing the capacity of these slow-growing relatives of sequoia to endure through centuries.

However, another scientist recently found that a living individual, known as the “millennium cypress” or “great-grandfather” could be more than 5,000 years old—which would make it the oldest tree on Earth by a nearly half a millennium.

Science has long known that Alerce Milenario is old, but one man in particular knew that estimates were probably on the young side, since bore devices used to extract the wood needed to count the rings don’t go far enough into the four-meter-thick trunk of this Patagonian cypress (Fitzroya cupressoides) tree.

Dr. Jonathan Barichivich, a Chilean scientist at the Climate and Environmental Sciences Laboratory in Paris, took a core sample of the tree, located in Alerce Costero National Park and used a combination of computer simulation and randomization to create different growth scenarios of the tree based on growth patterns and climate data.

“This method tells us that 80% of all possible growth trajectories give us an age of this living tree greater than 5,000 years,” Barichivich said. “There is only a 20% chance that the tree is younger.”

MORE: Genetic Lineage of Thousand-Year-Old Oak Trees Seed an Experimental ‘Super Forest’

That would make it the oldest single tree by a couple hundred years, beating out a 4,853- year-old bristlecone pine tree in Great Basin National Park in Nevada called Methuselah.

Cypress trees can live very long indeed, and the sixth oldest tree in the world is a bald cypress found in South Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp.

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Old trees are extremely important to forest ecosystems, but ancient trees like Alerce Milenario are even more so.

Their seeds contain a DIY manual for adapting to and surviving all kinds of disasters and harsh conditions, all contained within the genetic code. Scientists have shown recently how the number of ancient trees within an ecosystem is directly correlated with its resiliency—making them valuable indeed.

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