The world’s oldest living organisms

Today’s Fun Biology Facts come from PuffHo, which gives a list (it’s been replicated elsewhere) of the world’s oldest individual organisms (or, in some cases, clones). These come from a book by artist Rachel Sussman to be published by the University of Chicago Press on April 14: The Oldest Living Things in the World. (the spruce in the fourth picture below graces the cover).

Sussman notes that it took her five years to travel the world and photograph these amazing organisms. The book’s foreword is by Carl Zimmer.

Here are five examples and one eucalyptus that isn’t pictured because it’s too rare.

I can understand the omission of the eucalyptus. When I visited the bristlecone pine forest in the White Mountains of California, which are said to include the oldest single individuals of any species, I inquired about the oldest pine—”Pine alpha”—and was told that it was a secret.  Wikipedia gives its age:

A specimen of Pinus longaeva located in the White Mountains of California is 5,063 years old, from measurements by Tom Harlan.The identity of the specimen is being kept secret by Harlan. This is the oldest known tree in North America, and the oldest known individual tree in the world, although a clonal individual, nicknamed “Old Tjikko”, a Norway spruce in Sweden is 9,550 years old.

You really must make the drive up to the bristlecone forest if you’re anywhere near Death Valley or the Owens Valley in California. It’s fantastic. The trees are old and gnarled, fighting for life in a dry, cold environment.  And of course Pine Alpha will remain a secret, because if people knew where it was, they’d take bark samples, carve their names into it, and god knows what else.

But I digress: here’s a sample of old organisms (plants and one bacterial colony) from Sussman’s book. The captions are from PuffHo, probably written by Sussman:

La Llareta: 2,000+ years old (Atacama Desert, Chile)
“”What looks like moss covering rocks is actually a very dense, flowering shrub that happens to be a relative of parsley, living in the extremely high elevations of the Atacama Desert.”


Stromatolites: 2,000-3,000 years old (Carbla Station, Western Australia)
“Straddling the biologic and the geologic, stromatolites are organisms that are tied to the oxygenation of the planet 3.5 billion years ago, and the beginnings of all life on Earth.”

These colonies are the oldest known fossil life on Earth—about 3.5 billion years old—and they are cyanobacteria, formerly known as blue-green algae, that form the stromatolite mats. It’s amazing that these mats still exist in a few places on earth as living organisms.


Welwitschia Mirabilis: 2,000 years old (Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia)
“The Welwitschia is primitive conifer living only in parts of coastal Namibia and Angola where moisture from the sea meets the desert. Despite appearances, it only has two single leaves, which it never sheds. National plant of Namibia.”

This spruce (clearly “Old Tikko”), is almost twice the age of Pine Alpha, but it’s said to be clonal (see above):

Spruce Gran Picea: 9,550 years old (Fulufjället, Sweden)

“This 9,950-year-old tree is like a portrait of climate change. The mass of branches near the ground grew the same way for roughly 9,500 years, but the new, spindly trunk in the center is only 50 or so years old, caused by warming at the top of this mountain plateau in Western Sweden.”

Screen shot 2014-03-30 at 7.50.55 AM

Pafuri Baobab: Up to 2,000 years old (Kruger National Park, South Africa)
“”This baobab lives in the Kruger Game Preserve in South Africa and requires an armed escort to visit. Baobabs get pulpy at their centers and tend to hollow out as they grow older. These hollows can serve as natural shelters for animals, but have also been appropriated for some less scrupulous human uses: for instance, as a toilet, a prison, and a bar.”


Here’s one I’d like to see, but understand why it’s not pictured. I wonder if it’s clonal, for it’s older than Pine Alpha by a long shot.

Rare Eucalyptus (species redacted for protection): 13,000 years old (New South Wales, Australia)

“This critically endangered eucalyptus is around 13,000 years old, and one of fewer than five individuals of its kind left on the planet. The species name might hint too heavily at its location, so it has been redacted.”

You can see Rachel Sussman’s TED talk on the world’s oldest organisms here, her website is here, and her portfolio that has many other pictures of old organisms is here.

I only wish she hadn’t tried to explicate her work in a rather pompous way. The biology stories and pictures are wondrous enough without this leaden prose:

My practice is contextualized by the multidisciplinary inquiries of Matthew Ritchie and the new conceptualism of Taryn Simon and Trevor Paglen, who likewise gain physical access to restricted subjects and illustrate complex concepts with photographs supported by text. The work spans disciplines, continents, and millennia: it’s part art and part science, has an innate environmentalism, and is underscored by an existential incursion into Deep Time. I begin at ‘year zero,’ and look back from there, exploring the living past in the fleeting present. This original index of millennia-old organisms has never before been created in the arts or sciences.

I approach my subjects as individuals of whom I’m making portraits in order to facilitate an anthropomorphic connection to a deep timescale otherwise too physiologically challenging for our brain to internalize. . . .


h/t: Su


  1. Merilee
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic!! I’ve seen some cool bristlecones in southern Utah and Colorado ( up Mt. Evans, I believe).

  2. Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I would be curious to learn how people determine the age of some of these. I can see counting tree rings, but how does one estimate the age of a ‘clonal’ methuselah like ancient beds of stromatolites or fields of sea grass?

    • Achrachno
      Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      In the case of one species, a Pleistocene age relict oak in southern California, it was determined by estimating from growth rate since rings could not be counted directly because most had been lost to decay and termites. The assumptions used were very conservative and the plant is probably much older than the estimated 13,000 years.

  3. uglicoyote
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Road.

  4. Steve Gerrard
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I think of Deep Time as millions of years, at least. Old enough that your own species didn’t exist yet. The Pyramids are older than some of these plants. The verbiage is distracting to me.

    The plants and photos are fascinating on their own, of course.

  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if her book will include Te Matua Ngahere who I saw years ago when I was still youthful.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:06 am | Permalink

      Why? What age are you claiming? 😉

  6. Lee
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Curious about size of some of these. Something for scale would be nice.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I may have seen Old Tjikko, without knowing it of course, since I wandered Fulufjället before the age was discovered. It is Sweden’s southernmost “fjäll” (landscape above the tree line), but atypically so: as seen from the images it is absolutely flat. It’s not a high mountain but a roundish stump of a volcano pillar, making the tree line marginally by being dry. Apparently the early AGW was enough to take the top towards tree ecology.

    The next oldest clone of Old Rasmus, also 9500+ years, I haven’t seen. (Named after the discoverer’s d*g, as Old Tjikko is.*) It is in Sonfjället, which is one of the few southern fjälls I haven’t wandered. Yet. [ ]

    *I tried to google the etymology of Tjikko, a samic sounding name. Instead I got a hit on a registered hunting dog which is claimed to be alive at 31 [!] years of age. [ ] No owner given though, so I can’t tie her to the discoverer.

    • Matt G
      Posted March 30, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Cool, a tree that is older than Earth itself. Talk about Norwegian Wood!

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted March 30, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        I had to think about that one for a second 😀

  8. ladyatheist
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    This would make a great children’s book.

  9. mordacious1
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    This, for some reason, made me start singing “Colors of the Wind” (sorry Ms. Williams):

    How high does the sycamore grow? If you cut it down, then you’ll never know.

    • Achrachno
      Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink


  10. Jiten
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Hehehe Alan Sokal used words like “contextualized” in his hoax. How could she write this and not see anything wrong with it? She definitely needs Steven Pinker’s forthcoming book.

    • Achrachno
      Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      She does not speak like that in person — she’s very clear and down-to-earth. She should write more like she speaks and all would be well.

    • LB
      Posted March 30, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      Her essay appears to be written in “art-speak”. I was taught that in my art criticism classes in grad school but never understood why. Needless to say I didn’t do that well in my art and critical theory classes. Still got my MFA, though.

      • gluonspring
        Posted March 30, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s to get grants. I have an artist friend who expresses irritation about having to write artist statements that she considers BS but she feels she has no choice because people giving out art grants, galleries considering exhibitions, etc., are looking for that. It drives her nuts because she works to make the art itself the statement. This particular example seems worse than those I’ve seen from my friend, but similar enough in character to clearly be an example of a kind: artist statement written in overwrought art-speak.

    • TJR
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:42 am | Permalink

      Adding to the comments above, its definitely a style that many people write in because they feel they have to in order to get published etc, they know its silly just as much as we do.

      One ex-colleague, a sociologist, wrote in classic social-science-ese like the above, but talked quite normally and once told me a filthy joke about princess Di.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

        And still they wonder why some scientists have little patience with them.

  11. Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    The parsley’s relative is just too wonderful!

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    These colonies are the oldest known fossil life on Earth—about 3.5 billion years old—and they are cyanobacteria, formerly known as blue-green algae, that form the stromatolite mats.

    There is no way to know if the fossil stromatolites were based around cyanobacteria ecology, I think. When people try to date the cyanobacteria clade with the GOE in mind, its later diversification fit but the root tend to be just pushing 3.5 billion years ago at best. But I’m no expert on this. [ , fig 1 & table 1: note how not all models stretch node 1 below 3.5 billion years.]

    Most certainly based around phototrops though. Speaking of which, the 3.5 billion years fossils, now both stromatolites and MISS (by Hazen et al quite recently), are the oldest accepted fossils. There are two recent independent finds of trace fossils in Isua pushing 3.8+ years, with one displaying phototropism.

    It is suggestive I think. Especially since the phototropic Fe oxidation is on a fairly straight pathway to modern Mn based photosynthesis (photosystem II) of cyanobacteria. Initially scarcer Mn is more soluble than Fe so is seen to have been washed out of rocks in fair amounts after Fe was mostly used up. Porphyrins can bind both, and an intermediate stage would be to fixate the Mn for generic oxidation as it becomes scarce as well.

    But I don’t know the reception.

    [Both are dependent on modern microscale analysis.

    The BIFs find:
    “The isotopic compositions therefore reflect “primary”, low-temperature sedimentary values. The positive δ56Fe values measured from the ISB magnetites are best explained by deposition of Fe(III)-oxides produced by partial oxidation of Fe(II)-rich ocean water.” .

    To me it seems the more solid of the two putative finds. Certainly the more informative.

    The biogenic graphite find:
    “Transmission electron microscope observations show that graphite in the schist occurs as nanoscale polygonal and tube-like grains, in contrast to abiotic graphite in carbonate veins that exhibits a flaky morphology.”

  13. gluonspring
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Some of those plants look pretty good to have been buried under several miles of water for five months.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 4:17 am | Permalink


  14. Robert Seidel
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    My own favourite example of long-living organisms are the Hexactinellid, or glass sponges:

  15. driftwood
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I second the recommendation to go up in the White Mountains to see the bristlecones. The literature said that the trees only replace 2% of their needles per year, so while I was trying to wrap my mind around the idea of a tree being thousands of years, I stopped to consider that many of those small pine needles were a good bit older than I was. Wonderful place.

  16. merilee
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 12:36 am | Permalink


      • Merilee
        Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        I had forgotten to check “the” boxes:-)

        • Diane G.
          Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

          When I do that my emoticon would be far from a smiley.

  17. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    The recent change in the growth form of Old Tjikko in response to warming is fascinating. I wonder what the implications are for its future life expectancy?

  18. lanceleuven
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    This is an excellent post! I love fascinating tales abut these kinds of ancient organisms. I particularly liked La Llareta from the Atacama Desert. It looks so weird and alien. I want one!

  19. Dominic
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    That Gran Picea is telling, just as the IPCC reports come out…

  20. frank
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    “The mass of branches near the ground grew the same way for roughly 9,500 years, but the new, spindly trunk in the center is only 50 or so years old.”

    Can someone explain to me how one part of the tree can be 9,500 years old and the trunk 50? I’m not challenging this, just curious. Also, not sure what Jerry means by clones, where these organisms cloned by humans?

    Thank you for any information in advance


    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      “Can someone explain to me how one part of the tree can be 9,500 years old and the trunk 50?”

      The new trunk grew from a shoot, which necessarily existed before it became a trunk. How else could it be?

      (When I was 10, I was surprised to learn that hair grows from the root, not the tip. I already thought I was a pretty knowledgeable zoologist, so I was shocked and embarrassed to discover my ignorance on this point. I’m so glad nobody ever found out I thought that.)

  21. gluonspring
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how old the longest lived single cell is in these, or any other, organism?

    I also wonder how much the DNA has changed from mutations since the original seed. You could assess this somewhat by comparing the DNA on various branches where cells are generationally isolated. Not giving it much though, it seems that one would expect either more genetic diversity among cells of these long lived organisms than among shorter lived organisms (even flash in a pan humans have a lot of somatic variation) or lower effective mutation rates (e.g. better error correction).

  22. Posted March 31, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I would think there are many people–and not just fundamentalists–who have trouble accepting that these plants are so old. They defy our usual sense of death as something that comes along inevitably for all life. Lives measured in thousands of years, while explainable scientifically, seem utterly strange. So does basic cloning, as in bacteria; in that case, there is no death at all.

    Brock Haussamen

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] […]

  2. […] came across this brilliant post on HuffPo via Jerry Coyne, over at Why Evolution is True and just had to share it. Photographer Rachel Sussman has travelled the globe taking images of the […]

  3. […] The world’s oldest living organisms […]

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