ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the world’s oldest plants turns out to be a 13,000 year-old scrub oak (Quercus palmeri, or Palmer’s Oak) in Southern California. Apparently this tree has survived for so long, despite the fact that it was born in the ice age and there have been numerous climate changes since then, by cloning itself, hiding in a crevice, being small, and growing slowly. Luck was involved as well, almost certainly.

The plant was actually discovered more than ten years ago during a survey of plant diversity in the Jurupa Hills of Riverside County, and it was noted at the time that this tree was utterly out of place. According to Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, a professor at the University of California Davis,

Palmer’s Oak normally occurs at much higher elevations, in cooler, wetter climates. In contrast, the Jurupa Oak scrapes by in dry chaparral, wedged between granite boulders and stunted by high winds, atop a small hill in plain sight of suburban backyards.

You never know what you are going to find in your backyard in the suburbs of California.

The age of the tree was estimated by an analysis of the rings by Michael May.

Ring counts show that the Jurupa Oak is growing extremely slowly. At its current rate of about 1/20th of an inch per year, it would have taken at least 13,000 years for the clone to reach its current size. And it could be much older.

There are actually several pockets of this species of tree located outside the plant’s main distribution, and reproduction by cloning seems to be the modus operands for their long term survival.

The researchers believe that

…this stand of Q. palmeri is a relict of an ancient population that has persisted in the Jurupa Mountains despite warming since the last glacial period. … ancient clones have been identified in other woody taxa , including a nearly 12,000 year old clone of creosote (Larrea tridentata Coville) found in the Mojave Desert. Nonetheless, our 13,000 year estimate for the age of the Jurupa clone places it among the oldest of living plants.

… Our findings at Jurupa suggest that cloning may be a significant contributor to the persistence of these disjunct populations. Numerous other woody shrubs in the southwest share such disjunct distributions and patterns of growth, and it is thus tempting to speculate that disjunct populations of many of these other species may consist of extremely long-lived clones as well.

Some day the Ice Age will be back, and perhaps these lower elevation pockets of self-cloning plants will contribute to the inevitable shift in the distribution of vegetation. Should they survive global warming, that is.

The paper that reports these findings is published in PLoS ONE, an OpenAccess science journal. This means that you can read the original paper even though you are not a subscriber. That is how OpenAccess works.

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

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 2, 2010

    Wonderful paper. I just posted a link to this on my Facebook page, among whose 531 “friends” are a number of scientists, engineers, and people interested in longevity. Your analysis is greatly appreciated.

  2. #2 Tilia
    January 2, 2010

    It is Quercus not Ouercus, love from a dyslexic forester!

  3. #3 george.w
    January 2, 2010

    Hope its location is somewhat obscure. I used to drive up Buffalo mountain in East Tennessee for photography. One attraction was a gnarly little pine clinging to a bare spot against the wind. One time I went up there, and found the remains of a fire with beer cans, but no gnarly pine.

  4. #4 raven
    January 3, 2010

    As was posted several times on the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog, this clump of trees is over twice as old as the age of the universe.

    Much to our surprise (not really), several posters objected to that conclusion. Not that the universe must be older but that the trees couldn’t be older than 6,000 years. Which is nonsense, the flood 4500 years ago would be the oldest they could be.

    There are many such clone groups that are older than the universe. The King’s holley in Tasmania is thought to be 43,000 years old and is the only and last of its species.

    A spruce tree in Scandinavia is 8,000 years old and the famous creosote bush.

    Given how little effort is made to identify such clones and date them, there are probably many more. One theory is that they are left over from another universe, the universes seeming to last for about 6,000 years.

  5. #5 Paul S.
    January 3, 2010

    Why don’t we have anything that old here in the northeast?

    (Oh yeah, it probably has to do with the 1000 feet or so of ice that probably covered most of this area when that tree was starting to grow.)

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    January 3, 2010

    Paul, there is some old ice in the ADK’s and the White Mountains.

  7. #7 Paul S.
    January 3, 2010

    Yes, but are there any 13,000 year old trees in it? I didn’t think so. :P

  8. #8 Sven DiMilo
    January 3, 2010

    I’ve seen the creosote ring in question. “King Clone” they call it, the botanists and people like that.
    I once found it with Google Earth, too, and that wasn’t easy.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    January 3, 2010

    Paul” I’d wager there is pollen, but it would not be 13k. It would be much older, closer to 40k

  10. #10 pft
    January 4, 2010

    While it was in an ice age 13,000 years ago, the warming that brought about the end of the ice age began 18-20,000 years ago.

    An ice age of course tends to wipe out most vegetation, especially those that end up under glaciers. When trees first evolved, my memory fails me, 400 million years ago IIRC, the lignin was resistant to bacterial degradation, and some scientists say that they played a big role in reducing CO2 levels from several thousand ppm to levels sufficient to facilitate an ice age.

    Bacteria of course have since learned to deal with trees lignin, but with a higher albedo than cropland, some suspect the LIA may have been induced by deforestation to plant crops.

    With reforestation in the NH over the last 60 years, perhaps some of the warming is due to trees.

    Don’t pay much attention to the creationists, I have personally never met one, and suspect they don’t exist in large numbers. Most Christians were fine with Darwinism in the 19th century, and the Catholic Church has never literally interpreted the bible, and supported science to better understand the scriptures. Of course, they insisted on proof, and any unproven hypothesis, such as Galileos heliocentric views were met with skepticism. But new views in science even today meet with skepticism, thats science.

  11. #11 Sven DiMilo
    January 4, 2010

    Don’t pay much attention to the creationists, I have personally never met one, and suspect they don’t exist in large numbers.

    WTF? You are wrong wrong wrong about that!
    Ever been to, say, Oklahoma?

  12. #12 Paul
    January 4, 2010

    Don’t pay much attention to the creationists, I have personally never met one, and suspect they don’t exist in large numbers.

    Surveys are also fairly consistent in their estimates of how many Americans believe in evolution or creationism. Approximately 40%-50% of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of the origins of life, while comparable numbers accept the idea that humans evolved over time.

    It’s from 2005, but there hasn’t exactly been a mass exodus from magical thinking to rationality in the last 5 years.

  13. #13 Dave
    February 1, 2010

    @Paul S. – Actually, we do. It’s called box huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera.

  14. #14 ramblingwoods
    February 1, 2010

    That is amazing..my tree post..not scientific at all…
    Herbie The Elm Tree

  15. #15 Melissa
    February 2, 2010

    I had no idea such ancient plants existed – thanks for enlightening me. This is my first Festival of the Trees & I’m making the rounds. Nice to meet yr blog.

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