Climate: In Chile, a 5,000-year-old tree, a real “time capsule” – nature

Climate: In Chile, a 5,000-year-old tree, a real “time capsule” – nature



In Chile, “Fitzroya cupressoides” (or Patagonian cypress) is 28 meters high and four in diameter, and the age of the “Great Abuelo” (great-grandfather) is said to be about 5,000 years. It would thus be older than the oldest currently recognized tree, a 4,850-year-old Bristlecone pine, kept in a secret location in the United States.

An endemic species with highly resistant wood

“It’s a survivor. No other tree has had the chance to live so long,” says Antonio Lara, a researcher at the University of Austral in Chile and the Chilean Center for Climate Sciences and Resilience, part of the team responsible for studying tree lifespan.

On the edge of the valley in which it is located, in the region of Los Rios, 800 km south of Santiago, the Patagonian cypress has been spared from fires and overexploitation, this species endemic to the south of the American continent, whose wood, very resistant, has been used for centuries in the construction of houses and boats .

Antonio Lara, researcher, notes “Alerce Milenario,” a Patagonian cypress tree that can be more than 5,000 years old. (Photo by Martin Bernetti/AFP)

Family story

Even before getting into the Guinness Book of Records, tourists walk for an hour through a forest of younger pines (300 to 400 years old) to take a selfie next to the tree with its thick, sinuous trunk covered with moss and lichens. Its growing notoriety has prompted the National Forest Office to increase the number of forest rangers and limit visits, which are only by pre-registration.

Gran Abuelo was discovered in 1972 by a forest ranger, Anibal Henriquez, who “didn’t want people and tourists to know (where it was), because he knew it was of great value,” explains his daughter Nancy Henriquez, herself a forest ranger.

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Anibal’s grandson, Jonathan Barichevicz, grew up playing among the Patagonian cypress trees and is now one of the scientists studying the species at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in Paris.

view of "Alerce Millenario" In the Alerce Costero National Park in Valdivia, Chile, taken on April 10, 2023. In a forest in southern Chile, protected from fires and logging that destroyed
Alerce Milenario in Alerce Costero National Park, Chile. (Photo by Martin Bernetti/AFP)

2400 year old specimen

In 2020, as part of his research on climate change, he and Antonio Lara extracted a sample from the tree using the longest hand drill in existence. But they could not reach its center. This specimen has been officially estimated to be about 2,400 years old, and thanks to a predictive model, “80% of the possible pathways suggest the tree will be 5,000 years old,” explains Jonathan Barichevitch, who hopes to publish his work soon.

The study excited the scientific world, because dendrochronology–the study of the age of trees from their trunk rings–has limitations when it comes to measuring ancient specimens, because many have rotten pits.

“symbols of resilience”

“It’s not just about its age,” explains Antonio Lara, “there are many other reasons that give this tree a value and meaning and justify the need to protect it.” A witness to the past 5,000 years, it is considered an enormous “time capsule”, which stores information about the past and how these trees were able to adapt to changing climate and their environment.

Trees are rarely very old. Most of them are less than 1000 years old and a few lived more than 2000-3000 years.

“It’s like an open book,” says Carmen Gloria Rodriguez, research assistant in the Dendrochronology and Global Change Lab at Southern University. In particular, they show dry years (with narrower rings) and rainy years (wider) and can give indications of fires and earthquakes.

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German Pia Meyer, an undergraduate student from Austral University, investigates several cuttings of cypress (Austrocedrus chilencis) in the Dendrochronology Laboratory of Austral University
Scientists are studying samples of this tree. Dendrochronology in particular provides information on changes in climate over the centuries. (Martin Bernetti/AFP)

“They are symbols of resilience and adaptation. If these trees disappear, an important key to how life adapts to changes in the planet disappears with them,” Jonathan Barichevicz asserts.

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