The 13,000-year old tree that survives by cloning itself

By Ed Yong | December 26, 2009 12:00 pm

In California’s Jurupa Mountains, there is a very unusual group of tree – a Palmer’s oak. Unlike the mighty trees that usually bear the oak name, this one looks like little more than a collection of small bushes. But appearances can be deceiving. This apparently disparate group of plants are all clones of a single individual, and a very old one at that.

By repeatedly cloning itself, the Palmer’s oak has lived past the separation of Britain from continental Europe, the demise of the mammoths and saber-toothed cats, and the birth of human agriculture. It is among the oldest plants in existence, first sprouting from an acorn around 13,000 years ago. According to the creationist view of history, this tree was around 7,000 years old when the universe was created.

Palmer's-oak

Today, the Jurupa individual grows in a narrow gulch between two large granite boulders, and it’s the only one of its kind in the surrounding area. It seems distinctly out of place, living in a much drier climate and much lower altitude than others of its species. Palmer’s oaks usually like mountainous living accommodations with cool, wet climates.

The oak has around 70 clusters of stems, entangled in a dense thicket around 2.5 kilometres in width and one metre in height. Michael May, from the University of California, Davis, first suspected that these stems might all belong to the same tree because of their appearance. They all look very similar in terms of their leaves and growth patterns. Even though they were bursting with flowers (the sexual organs of plants), they showed no sign of sexual reproduction at all. The ground around them was littered with aborted acorns, but no seedlings at all.

An analysis of the plant’s proteins confirmed May’s suspicions. He found identical versions of nine different proteins from leaf samples taken from 32 of the 70 stem clusters. This staggeringly low genetic variation implies a set of clones. In some cases, a pattern like this could be a sign of extreme inbreeding caused by a limited population, but not here. May found two different versions of some of the proteins (representing two variants of the same gene), but the same two forms in every single sample he took. The odds of this happening because of inbreeding are less than one in a billion. The samples must be clones of one another.

The tree only expands once it is hit by fire, resprouting new shoots from scorched branches. This unusual strategy makes it relatively easy to work out how old the tree must be. May did this by measuring rings from various stems, estimating the tree’s growth rate and working out how long it would have needed to reach its current mighty size. For comparison, he took similar measurements from three other populations of Palmer’s oak to look at how fast the tree can grow under a range of different conditions.

Based on the Jurupa individual alone, May calculated that the tree is around 15,600 years old. The more realistic estimate, factoring in the growth rates of other trees, says that the oak is at least 13,000 years, with the stems growing at around one centimetre every year. There’s a lot of room for error in such estimates, but May says that his figure is based on a very conservative set of assumptions. If anything, it’s an underestimate for how old the Jurupa tree actually is.

It started growing during an Ice Age, and has survived through the subsequent warming and all the climate upheavals ever since. Few plants can compete with such a record-holder. Other possible contenders include a creosote bush in the Mojave Desert that’s around 12,000 years old, a box huckleberry plant that’s survived 13,000 years, and the oldest of all – a King’s holly from Tasmania that could be over 43,000 years old, and is the only example of its species. All of these green geriatrics are clones.

Reference: May, M., Provance, M., Sanders, A., Ellstrand, N., & Ross-Ibarra, J. (2009). A Pleistocene Clone of Palmer’s Oak Persisting in Southern California PLoS ONE, 4 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008346

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Plants, Sex and reproduction
MORE ABOUT: Jurupa, oak, oldest, Palmer's, tree

Comments (24)

  1. Rob Jase

    Of course some believer will probably claim that this is the tree of life mentioned in the bible.

  2. Katharine

    That’s nothing. Pando is older than humans.

  3. It must have been lonely floating out there in nothingness waiting for the earth to get created.

  4. It reminds me of the recent article in The Onion:
    Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World
    http://www.theonion.com/content/news/sumerians_look_on_in_confusion_as

  5. Daniel

    Well fuck you then for taking a exposition of one of Earth’s coolest new revelations and not being able to restrain your militant atheism for just a few small paragraphs without turning it into a jab against religion. For fuck’s sake, you lot sure do come across as insecure and seek a lot of assurance for your “beliefs” or lack thereof.

  6. Rob Jase

    What the matter Daniel, did we hit a little too close to home for you?

  7. Daniel J. Andrews

    Daniel, it wasn’t a jab against religion. If it was a jab at all, it was against a viewpoint held by a very vocal minority who have hijacked Christianity by imposing their own interpretation on ancient texts despite textual, cultural and scientific evidence to the contrary.

  8. Owlmirror

    Christian fanatics are just so bitter and angry. And surprisingly foul-mouthed, sometimes.
    And they commit psychological projection a lot, too. “Insecure”, LOL.

  9. Owlmirror

    Pando is older than humans.

    [citation needed] (Unless you’re also just kidding…)

  10. raven

    Pretty amazing to see a tree over twice the age of the universe. LOL
    The other examples are interesting as well. IMO, if we looked harder there should be many plants older than the universe.
    The intriguing one is the mentioned Tasmanian holley. An astonishing 7 times older than the universe. Just how do you conserve a clone that is the last and only member of a species?

  11. Daniel, how is this article a jab at relgion? You sound paranoid.

  12. Ed Yong

    It was a throwaway gag at most. If that counts as militant atheism, someone should really tell Dawkins because he’s trying too hard. Creationism is not synonymous with Christianity, let alone all religion. A jab against it is no more a jab against religion than taking the piss out of evolutionary psychology is an assault against science.

  13. Owlmirror

    Or taking the piss about the supermetaoverhyping of a fossil is an assault against primate palaeontology and evolution.

  14. DD

    A lumberjacks nightmare! Where’s the trunk? (Wait, that’s not a trunk!!) Many waterside plants get heavily browsed and tend to reproduce vegetative clones via underground rhyzomes etc. Willow, sedges, redwoods, bamboo, water lily, lotus, peppermint, may be very “old” due to constant cloning.
    Couple OT tidbits from the web:
    Ants & plants: plants control guardian ants w/ repellants & food
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8383577.stm
    Chaos & probability of butterfly wings & Texas tornados
    http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/the-probability-myth/380862/
    [Proponents of chaos theory never mention that flying insects/birds/bats cause mixture of otherwise stratified gases in sub-canopy humid rainforests, improving photosynthesis & respiration efficiency resulting in better fruit/herb provisioning.]

  15. echidna

    Daniel,
    You might want to distinguish between religion and wilful ignorance. It’s a jab at those who disregard evidence for the sake of religion.

  16. Spiff

    There are a large spectrum of origin beliefs that fall under the umbrella of “creationism”, and very few of them believe in a young earth. It comes across as philosophically ignorant to imply that all creationists are young earth creationists as this article does.

  17. raven

    spiff lying:
    There are a large spectrum of origin beliefs that fall under the umbrella of “creationism”, and very few of them believe in a young earth. It comes across as philosophically ignorant to imply that all creationists are young earth creationists as this article does.

    Quote: US poll
    The Bible is
    – “the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.” 31%
    – “the inspired word of God but that not everything it in should be taken literally”. 47%
    – “an ancient book of “fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.” 19%

    A fundie death cultist lying. LIke that never happens.
    I googled it, unlike spiff who just made things up. YECism isn’t usually asked on polls per se but related questions give a percentage in the USA between 30 to 45% of the population. This is 90-135 million people. Higher than the 60 million Geocentrists. I don’t call almost half the population “very few”.
    Intelligent Design is dying out. Even the Dishonesty Institute has many YECs. It was just YECism in a sheet and that didn’t fool anyone so they are heading back to YEC.
    And Spiff, learn to read someday. This was a great article about a fascinating plant, a Palmer Oak that was growing and left behind when the last ice age ended, one that is 13,000 years old. It is completely accurate to point out that nearly half of the US population thinks this plant is twice the age of the universe.
    It is just a fact spiff, something you have no acquaintance or interest in. It is also funny, something you also have no interest in. If certain groups of ignorant xians are going to be ridiculous, they can expect to be laughed at by educated and intelligent people. Deal with it.

  18. raven

    wikipedia Creationism:
    Creationism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaJump to Young Earth creationism‎: According to one recent poll, Young Earth creationist views are held by as many as 44% of adults in the United States. …

    Case closed. Maybe this 13,000 year old oak was left over from a previous universe.
    According to the people who know the universe is 6,000 years old, this one is scheduled to end any day now or 2012, which ever comes first. So if universes last 6,000 years, it fits perfectly.

  19. BdN

    Pando is older than humans.
    [citation needed] (Unless you’re also just kidding…)

    It’s been estimated by some to be approximately 1 000 000 years old.
    And modern humans are generally considered to be about 200 000 years old.

  20. I wonder if there are any olive trees more than 2 000 years old? They seem to reproduce by spreading trunks from the base roots and are pretty well un-killable. Has anyone looked at the ones around the Mediterranean? Just that I remember some olives in Nimes, France that were several thousand years old and guessed there might be some even older ones about.

  21. Briana

    I’m not sure about the dating anyway, inevitable christian sensitivities aside. The article about the holly said they really didn’t know if they were right about the age, and there are flaws in carbon dating that can’t be ignored.
    In all honesty, you may be able to determine what came before what (well, even that is disputed in certain situations), but declaring this-or-that is such-and-such years old is very arguable.
    And wait a minute… does this mean if I clone myself continuously, I live forever? Too bad I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it…

  22. Chris M.

    The Jurupa Mountains are right across the river from Mt. Rubidoux, I was just looking at this range yesterday!
    Question, though: is calling it a continuous cluster 2.5 kilometers in width a typo? The paper mentions a cluster about 25×8 meters, with 70 stem clusters, and the whole range is quite small and too discontinuous for anything on that larger scale.
    Anyway, remarkable stuff, even if the growth-based age estimates are likely to have extremely low precision. I’ll have to go find it (and bring some water to apologize for interrupting) one of these summers.

  23. john h

    Cloning is cheating.
    I’ll stick with the bristlecone pine as the oldest organism.

  24. Brian Too

    I was thinking that the article missed the Aspens, and vaguely wondering “wot’s Pando”, and didn’t put it together that these are connected!

    Here’s a fine original link for those interested.

    http://discovermagazine.com/1993/oct/thetremblinggian285/?searchterm=aspen

    I think one interesting distinction is that Pando is a single organism. The article above says that the Jurupa oak consists of many organisms related by a cloning process. Or at least that’s how I read it.

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