California’s ‘Methuselah’ bristlecone pine may no longer be the world’s oldest tree

A visitor looks at bristlecone pine trees.
The 4,853-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine tree known as Methuselah grows in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of Inyo County.
(Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency)
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Scientists have discovered a new contender for the oldest tree in the world, potentially bumping California’s ancient bristlecone pine tree from the top spot.

The state’s “Methuselah” bristlecone pine tree has been considered one of the oldest living trees on Earth since its rings were counted in 1957. The tree, located high in the White Mountains of Inyo County near Bishop, is estimated to be 4,853 years old.

Researchers in Chile, however, recently identified a new challenger to the world’s oldest tree from the depths of a ravine in Chile’s Alerce Costero National Park.


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The tree, dubbed the “Alerce Milenario” or “Gran Abuelo,” may be more than 5,000 years old, according to a new report in Science magazine. Jonathan Barichivich, a scientist from Chile who specializes in dendrochronology, and his colleague Antonio Lara announced their findings last month. Dendrochronology is the study of tracking tree age by using growth rings.

In 1993, Lara and a colleague discovered an alerce tree stump in Chile that was more than 3,622 years old, placing alerce trees above giant sequoias as among the oldest trees in the world. In 2020, Lara and Barichivich returned to the forest to take a sample from the Alerce Milenario.

The claim of the 5-millennia-old tree may be met with skepticism from the scientific community, however, as the estimate of the tree’s age does not involve a full out of tree growth rings, according to Science.

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Instead of taking a full core sample of the tree’s rings, Barichivich and Lara used an increment borer to draw a narrow plug of wood from the tree. The partial sample of the tree’s wood showed about 2,400 growth rings.

Barichivich then compiled a statistical analysis to estimate the age range of the tree, according to Science. The model compiled complete core samples and environmental factors. According to Barichivich’s findings, which have not been published yet, the tree was estimated to be about 5,484 years old and had an 80% chance of being more than 5,000 years old.