JUN 13, 2017 10:58 AM PDT

How old are the oldest living things in the world?

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The longest documented human life was that of 122 year old Jeanne Calment, who lived from 1875-1997. That may seem like an unimaginable life span - and it is, if you consider all the world events and global development that she lived through - but compared to the oldest living tree, Jeanne's life was but a drop of water in the ocean. A bristle cone pine that lived up until just four years ago in the White Mountains in California, this tree was a sapling in roughly 3,000 B.C., making it 4,845 years old! Talk about a long life!

Plants make up the majority of the oldest living creatures because they're very good at making resources last, especially in places that would seem particularly unappealing to other species. Map lichens in the freezing cold of Greenland who are up to 3,000 years old, yucca and creosote bushes in the Mojave Desert that last up to 12,000 years, llareta in Chile's Atacama Desert which has lived for 2,000 years (mostly without precipitation). All of these plants have gotten very good at surviving in harsh conditions with very limited resources. Some animals do it pretty well though, too. Take the black coral, for instance, which has sat at the bottom of the ocean for the last 4,270 years, or the barrel sponge, which is 15,000 years old and still going.

But that being old isn't the same as being immortal. For those long-lived individuals, death can come just as quickly as for us shorter-lived species. One of the oldest Cyprus trees in the world, dubbed The Senator, burned to the ground after 3,500 years in 2012 thanks to two men who lit a fire in her trunk. But nevertheless, these individuals have much to teach us about our planet's history, which is why studying and preserving them is so important.
About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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