The Oldest Organisms In The World
by Stephen Luntz
Photo credit: Rachel Sussman
Most of the plants and animals we see around us may adopt a live fast, die young strategy – but there are some that take it to the opposite extreme. Artist Rachel Sussman has spent the last decade seeking out individuals more than 2000 years old, and photographing them.
Sussman’s newly released book, The Oldest Living Things in the World combines her art, tales of how she reached the remote places most specimens inhabit, and the contributions of science writer Carl Zimmer.
Most of Sussman’s examples survive in harsh environments where a lack of warmth or nutrients make growth a very slow business. In this class is the La Laretea (Azorella compacta) plants of the Atacama Desert, Peru. The dense mats grow just 1.5cm a year, but make up for this by lasting up to 3000 years.
Antarctic mosses such Chorisodontium aciphyllum grow even more slowly, just centimeters in centuries and have been revived after a millennium and a half in frozen suspended animation.
Such stark conditions not only make long life times necessary for any plant that wants to grow big, but also create an environment where there are likely to be few predators or parasites.
Some species however, manage to reach great age in the midst of life, such as the Tasmanian Huon Pines (Lagarostrobos franklinii) whose colonies live for more than 10,000 years in the Tasmanian forests, although 2000 is more typical.
Sussman’s oldest plant is the clonal colony of Quaking Aspens (Populus tremuloides) in Utah, with a single interconnected root system and thousands of stems. While individual “trees” may live and die, the roots have survived for 80,000 years, stretching back to the midst of the last Ice Age.
As Sussman points out, these species are more than mere curiosities. The oldest living things known, Siberian Actinobacteria thought to be 400,000-600,000 years old were discovered as part of the quest to find life forms that might give us clues about what could survive on other worlds.
Moreover, most of these survivors are under threat from human activity of one form or another. All the cold climate species are endangered by climate change, while habitat destruction or invasive creatures threaten others. The Huon Pine would be near extinction were it not for the campaigns to save the Tasmanian Wilderness from large dams. The fact that things that so many things that could live through
fires, epic droughts and everything else nature could throw at them are under threat from our activities is a demonstration of just how dangerous we are to more vulnerable species
The first half of Sussman’s quest was outlined in this TED talk.