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Earth Dr Reese Halter's Blog


Of the 110 or so pine species, three cousins classified as Foxtail Pines live for thousands of years and hold many answers to anti-aging.

Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva), Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine (P. aristata) and foxtail pine (P. balfouriana) all live in the high mountains of western United States and have done so for the past 40 million years.

Great Basin bristlecone can live at least 4,864 years and its tree rings of living, dead standing trees and fallen pieces of wood have enabled scientists a continuous glimpse at climate in east central California since the end of the Pleistocene some 10,000 years ago – it’s unlike any other of the 80,000 species of trees on Earth.

Great Basin bristlecone pines live in eastern California in the White, Inyo and Paramint Mountains; in Nevada in the Quinn Canyon, Fish Creek, White Pine, Schell Creek and Snake Ranges, and in Ruby and Spring Mountains; in Utah on the Deep Creek and Indian Peak Ranges, the Pine Valley, Wah Wah and San Francisco Mountains; and the Markagunt and Aquarius Plateaus at elevations between 9,000 and 11,500 feet above sea level.

Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines are found in central and southern Colorado on Pikes Peak, Spanish Peaks, Mount Evans and on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico at elevations ranging from 7,500 to 11,700 feet. An outlying population exists on the San Francisco Peaks of northern Arizona.

Foxtail pines live in two populations in California; the northern stands are in the Klamath Mountains at ranges between 6,000 and 9,000 feet, while in the south they grow in the Sierra Nevada’s between 9,000 and 11,300 feet. In 2006, trees were found in Oregon on Lake Peak along the California border — those trees (I am told) have since died.

The three species are group together because they have needles bunched together in groups of five and branches resembling a fox’s tail. And these species are very long-lived with foxtail reaching 2,110 years while Rocky Mountain bristlecone have been recorded at 2,435 years.

Tree scientists believe bristlecones and foxtails can live so long – in part due to the harsh environment they call home. High mountaintops are very cold and dry, and very little is able to grow under these conditions. In addition, a scant amount of undergrowth with rocky soils prevents fire from creating a disturbance. In fact, it is so dry with about 10 inches of precipitation a year that wood-rotting fungi grows too slowly to debilitate these magnificent trees.

Unlike any other pines these three cousins have needle bundles that can all give rise to new buds all using them to grow new branches replacing those that die.

One hundred and twenty mile per hour winds blast ice crystals and rock dust wearing out bark and grotesquely shaping treetops. Tree roots, trunks, and branches have evolved in semi-independent sections so that when damage occurs the entire tree is not harmed.

Life at the top of the mountain is fraught with unimaginable hardships. The growing season lasts about two months. Needles are coated with thick layers of wax protecting moisture loss, and ice and dust damage. Like everything else about these trees, needles are designed for the long haul living for 45 years before being discarded.

Large, one third- to three quarters of an inch long, seeds have oval wings twice the length of seeds. Cones mature after 26 months and seeds fall from the cone and ‘helicopter’ to the ground.

Clark’s nutcracker a gray, black and white relative of jays harvest seeds and remember where most but not all caches are located.

These pines are all intolerant of shade, yet despite the fierce environmental conditions seeds manage to germinate and if they can survive the first twenty decades they will have reach the sapling stage. I’ve measure a three-foot tall Great Basin bristlecone that was 650 years old.

In order to be considered mature a Great Basin bristlecone must celebrate its one-thousandth birthday. It will be gnarled having porcupine girdles and frost scars along its trunk. A few structural roots will be exposed by hundreds of years of soil erosion and evidence of fine roots exhausted from mining the soil for nutrients, finally suffering mineral famine, are visible to the trained eye.

Unlike any other known living thing these trees and the ancient cliff cedars (Thuja occidentalis) of the Niagara Escarpment show no sign of the degenerative aging process. Many of them live more than two miles above the Earth yet they exhibit no mutations as they stoically enter their 48th century of life despite being bombarded by extreme levels of cosmic radiation. Gerontologists are awed that there are no signs of any chromosomal changes, including shortening of their tips as they age. They have classified Great Basin bristlecone pine as an organism of “negligible senescence.”

Great Basin bristlecone pines eventually die because they out grow the very soil and rock that supports them. They are the undisputed longest living non-clonal tree species on Earth.

The only perceived threat to these ancient trees appears to be global warming as the temperatures in the 20th century across the western U.S. have risen between 2 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, in California the time it takes for snow on the ground to melt has decreased 16 days between 1951 and 1996. These extreme cold temperature trees are on the edge – unable to migrate beyond the mountaintops.

The voracious mountain pine beetles have sped-up their life cycle due to rising temperatures and droughts, and begun to lay waste to the high elevation Rocky Mountain whitebark pines; it may just be a matter of time before foxtail and bristlecone pines face their wrath.

The introduced lethal European fungus, white pine blister rust, has also benefitted from warmer temperatures as it too has begun to creep up into the New Mexican Sangre de Cristo Range and kill the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines.

Treat your family to a once in a lifetime experience, visit heavens gate and the Great Basin bristlecone pines of Schulman Grove, White Mountains, California and touch the white dolomite sedimentary rocks, formerly the warm sea of 600 million years ago, that hold some of the answers to immortality.

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Earth Dr Reese Halter is an award-winning broadcaster and distinguished biologist. His latest books are The Insatiable Bark Beetle and The Incomparable Honeybee

Contact Earth Dr Reese Halter

Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2012. All rights reserved.


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