July 6, 2014 Ancient Forests Cling to The Niagara Escarpment
Recently, more attention is being focused on anti-aging and I believe that Nature, in particular cliff trees, can show people the way to age more gracefully.
Along the cliffs from Niagara Falls to the islands north of Tobermory there exists some of the world’s oldest cliff-dwelling trees. Some of those trees live within 60 miles of 7 million people in southern Ontario and the megalopolis of Toronto.
Hyperion, a coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), is the tallest tree on Earth at 379.3 feet and growing. General Sherman, a mountain Sequoia (Sequoia gigantum), is 274.9 feet tall with an astounding base of 102.6 feet. Not all ancient trees, however, are tall or big. Methuselah, a bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva), is over 4,700 years old and is the world’s oldest named living single-stemmed tree. He’s not tall or big; he’s weather beaten; he’s gnarly and near immortal.
The Niagara Escarpment is 435 miles long and made up of 400 million year old sedimentary rocks. For 130 million years the escarpment was under a Silurian Sea. Those rocks contain a rich mixture of tiny sea-dwelling animals without backbones known as invertebrates.
About 13,000 years ago the dolomitic caprock of the escarpment emerged from under the immense Wisconsinan Ice Sheet. For another 6,000 years it remained submerged under glacial Lake Algonquin. Lake levels fluctuated for thousands of years, but about 3,500 years ago the Niagara Escarpment resembled the landform seen today.
The rock faces of the Niagara Escarpment are awesome. The maple and beech forests provide exquisite habitat for many critters; for instance, there are over 300 species of birds, 54 types of mammals including the eastern Pipistrelle bat, and 32 kinds of reptiles like the endangered northern Dusky salamander and the threatened eastern Massasauga rattlesnake. The escarpment is also a favorite destination for hikers and rock-climbers.
Until the late 1980s little was known about the eastern white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) growing along the cliff faces.
University of Guelph botanist Professor Douglas Larson began to explore the trees growing out of shear rock faces and on ledges. What he quickly discovered was that these trees were old.
Eastern white cedars are amazing trees with a wide flexibility enabling them to live in swamps, on acidic thin soils and along cliffs. An average tree can produce in excess of 260,000 seeds in a life-time. And each tree has the ability to clone itself by rooting a branch that touches the ground. This trait protects swamp eastern white cedars when they tip-over. They don’t die easily.
As a matter of fact, Native North Americans steeped bark and needles from eastern white cedar, which provided vitamin C, and saved the French explorer Jacque Cartier and his men from the disease survey in 1535-36. Cartier aptly named this tree arbor vitae or the tree of life.
Native North Americans used eastern white cedars to build canoes and longhouses. The wood is highly rot resistant. They also derived many medicines from these trees.
In 1989 Dr Larson and his newly formed Cliff Ecology Research group began to actively explore the cliff-dwelling eastern white cedars along escarpment. Led by ecologist and rock-climber Peter Kelly the group used ropes to rappel cliff faces. They began to find thousand year old living, weather-beaten and in many cases upside down living eastern white cedars.
With the assistance of Global Forest Science and others, Larson’s group began the formidable task of mapping the entire 435-mile length of cliff dwelling forests. What they discovered was extraordinary.
Along the Bruce Peninsula they found two exceptionally ancient dead trees. One tree had in tact 1,653 rings or years of growth. Some growth rings were worn away from the other tree. Kelly estimated its age to be 1,890 years (over 690,000 sunrises).
That antiquitous eastern white cedar would easily have outpaced Canada’s oldest known living tree – a 1,697 old yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) from coastal British Columbia.
Over the next decade Peter Kelly went on to discover the oldest living eastern white cedar on the Niagara Escarpment – he called it the Ancient One with 1,320 rings or years of growth. It was born at the time the first Buddhist temple was built.
He found other ancient upside down, twisted, deformed yet defiant survivors; he gave them names like: Octopus Tree, Water-Fall Tree and Flying Elephant Tree.
These ancient trees just like the American bristlecone pines exhibit no signs of ageing. Gerontologists are awed that there is no evidence of any chromosomal changes, including shortening of their tips as trees age.
They, like the near immortal bristlecones pines of the eastern central White Mountains of California out-grow the ground beneath them – the sedimentary rocks break down before the trees die.
Erosion of sedimentary cliff faces and rock-falls along the Niagara Escarpment are what eventually kills the eastern white cedars. Similar to the britlecones, eastern white cedars are able to survive with as little as 10 percent living bark and thrive for centuries while hanging on literally by threads of life.
The key to long tree life is slow, at times almost imperceptible, growth. Our species has much to learn from this long-lived, persistent strategy of making haste slowly.
Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster and biologist. His forthcoming book is “Shepherding the Sea: The Race to Save Our Oceans.”
Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2014. All rights reserved.