The Oldest Trees in the World: The California Ancient Bristle Cone Pine Forest

Script and Story Board for DVD

It's now 4:15 PM PDT on Sunday, September 3, 2006. (Andre Agassi, 36 yo, legendary tennis star, lost in four sets at the US Open earlier today completing a 21-year career; he was in tears while acknowledging an eight-minute screaming, standing ovation by the New York tennis fans.) My name is Stephen Coles.

Today, Gary Livick and I are hiking in the White Mountains of the Eastern California Sierra Nevada range (not far from the state border with Nevada) in the Inyo National Forest, under the jurisdiction of the US Forest Service (of the Department of Agriculture) [not its rival, the National Park Service (of the Department of Interior)] in order to commune with the trees in the Ancient Bristle-Cone Pine Forest -- home to the oldest critters on the face of this planet (assuming, of course, that one allows us to include plants mathematically in the set of all "critters"). So what's their secret? Hmmm, let's see...

Altitude = 9,700 feet (elevation); Temperature = ~75 degrees Fahrenheit; Humidity: Low = [30 - 40] percent; Wind Velocity: Out-of-the-South at ~2 knots (nearly still); Atmospheric Air Quality: pure, clean (smog-free); Noise Level: Absolute Silence (not even birds chirping, so that, if you yourself remain quite, there are literally no other audible sounds) rendering a spooky feeling of profound, sacred spirituality; this contrasts sharply with our busy, modern city life, so filled with air-pollution, noise-pollution, and even night- time light-pollution. In other words, it’s a nearly perfect California day for what ever you might want to do. So, no big deal there. But this seemingly benign environment is rare. Most of the time, this area is a wind-swept, snow-covered land.

But the Golden State has always been a land of botanical superlatives: The tallest trees, the biggest trees, and the oldest trees. It has plenty of sunshine with the biggest ocean [the Pacific] along side to provide lots of moisture. Among the Redwoods of coastal Northern California [Eureka] Hyperion measures 378.1 feet tall and has grown taller than the previous 367.8-foot record-setter, the Stratosphere Giant. [Sequoia sempervirens]. California also has the heaviest [volumetrically largest] trees (like the General Sherman or the General Grant trees)[Sequoiadendron giganteum] in Sequoia National Park [these are trees that can't even reproduce in the absence of forest fires, secondary to natural lightning strikes, that cook/burn their pine-cone seeds that would otherwise never germinate].

But the oldest trees, technically known as Pinus longaeva, are arguably the ugliest, twisted, gnarly pine trees you've ever seen. This comes as a direct result of their struggle to survive the adversity of a truly harsh environment -- the high altitude, the alkaline soil, the fierce winds (at other times), the deep snow through ~9 months of the year, all combine to discourage most other plants from even attempting to compete against the Bristle Cones. So what we find is a graveyard for dead trees, half-dead trees, partly burned-out trees, and a much smaller population of fresh, younger wanabe trees. By the way, the oldest of them started growing before the Egyptians built their pyramids.

But, as we know, life -- by definition -- is a relentless adaptation to environmental niches that are largely uninhabitable by other competitors, like a fluid effortlessly seeking to conform to the shape of its container when poured from a tall, thin cylinder to a short, squat beaker, or conversely.

So where exactly are we? We are in the Methuselah Grove (Patriarchal Grove?) at "Marker 15" (of 30 markers) on the looping trail leading to-and-from the Schulman Visitor Center (approximately the half-way point in the 7 Km trek in a four-hour moderately-strenuous hike, for those who are physically up to it;

Moderately Strenuous

BTW, the ravines along the way are extremely steep, and a single loss-of-balance leading to a fall could be sufficient to abruptly terminate one's hike with "extreme prejudice"). So that's why I'm carrying a walking stick. [Hold it up.] It's a real defense mechanism, not a vain attempt to imitate Dr. Gregory House, M.D. who normally walks with a cane due to thigh surgery -- the arrogant, obnoxious, but impeccable diagnostician of the Fox- TV Series (Tuesdays at 8:00 PM; check your guide for local channels) with the eponymous name [" House"], now entering its third season.

The very oldest of these trees, affectionately known as the Methuselah Tree, is 4,733 years old. But how could one know the age of any one of these trees with such precision? The answer lies in a little-known sub-specialty of botanical science known as dendrochronology or “tree-ring counting.” A sub-sub-specialty is known as climato-dendrochronology and correlates the thickness of the individual rings to the amount of precipitation (flooding/drought) that took place during that historical year's growing season. This allows scientists to estimate climatic trends and to date the onset of ice ages with great precision when used in combination with carbon-dating methods. A curious quiz-program "factoid" is that the very first person to appreciate the potential meaning of variable tree-ring thickness was none other than Leonardo da Vinci, one of our GRG patron saints.

Prof. Edmund Schulman of the University of Arizona was the first arborist to date the trees in this particular forest in the early 1950's with his graduate students (Yes, Virginia, graduate students were required to go on field trips in those days). You will be relieved to note that a relatively non-invasive "coring tool" is used, so that they didn't have to saw down the tree to count the rings. Once the core is removed, the tree heals this coring injury and continues to grow as they normally would have before this diagnostic intervention.

Note that we are obliged not to disclose the exact location of the Methuselah Tree itself, since that might trigger a peculiar paradox -- the dilemma of having so many tourists show up to be photographed standing next to this unique tree that its delicate root system might be irreversibly damaged (an ironic sort of Heisenberg effect, if you will, as it achieved too much celebrity-exposure for its own good) -- not to mention the catastrophic prospect of deliberate vandalism to the tree itself by person or persons unknown.

Whenever I teach gerontology at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, every month for nearly ten years (including Summers), I usually hold up some of the latest books relevant to our field that came out in the last month; today is no exception. (Hold up DVD and five books.)



1. John Louth and Kevin White, "Living History: The Ancient Bristlecone Pines," DVD Produced by the USDA Forest Service in Association with the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association (2006).

2. Brian Miller and Edwin Rockwell, Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, "Methuselah Walk" Brochure (National Recreation Trails System (32 pages)).

3. Marvin A. Stokes and Terah L. Smiley, An Introduction to Tree Ring Dating (73 pages; University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ; 1996).

4. Anne Johnson, he Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (98 pages; Community Printing and Publishing; Bishop, CA; 1999).

5. Kelli M. Brucken, Wonders of the World: Bristlecone Pines (48 pages; Thomson Gale Press, Detroit, MI; 2006).

6. Michael P. Cohen, A Garden of Bristlecones: Tales of Change in the Great Basin (308 pages; University of Nevada Press, Reno, NV; 1998).


So, what can we learn from these mysterious trees that can be applied to potential interventions in human aging. Honest answer: Nothing really. Being charitable, it makes a wonderful visual to put together a series of useful “sound bites” that are really much more important than seeing the tree itself.

So, without further adieu or pretense, allow me to introduce myself. As I said my name is Stephen Coles. I'm an engineer and mathematician who dabbles in medicine from time to time. My medical specialization is Obstetrics and Gynecology (I've delivered hundreds of babies, including a number of IVF babies for couples suffering infertility.) But for the last 15 years I have focused on my true life-long passion Interventional Biogerontology, loosely speaking, searching for the "Fountain of Youth" or, in other words, seeking for the means to achieve radical life-extension with youthful decades still waiting-in-the-wings, and to do so hopefully within our own lifetimes. [By the way, there are no laws of physics, chemistry, or biology that preclude such a discovery, in principle. But that's a lecture for another day.] This has led me to become a collaborator in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine to perform autopsies on four Supercentenarians (persons 110 years or older) of the seven such autopsies that have ever been known to have been performed in all of history). Suffice it to say that the group I co-founded with three other scientists back in 1990 -- The Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group -- has now been recognized by The Guinness Book of World Records as the authority on human longevity (and, of course, they are the acknowledged-specialists in the business of record-keeping). They liked our careful scrutiny and rigorous validation of the age claims of Supercentenarians and we have actually been working with them informally for the last five years. [Hold up Guinness Book of World Records 2007; London, UK; 2006, in which our website is cited on p. 67 that lists the current Oldest Living People in the World, what we call Table E.]

More recently, we have created a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt Supercentenarian Research Foundation to fund the tissue sampling of all living Supercentenarians, with the aim of developing a rigorous, statistically-significant database of the most important SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) of "gerontic" (or longevity) genes, since we have come to learn in the last few years that the phenotype of longevity is inherited in our DNA (choose your parents wisely) more than it is influenced by life-style choices that clearly impact the expression of these gerontic genes (exercise, nutrition, supplements, etc.), despite statements to the contrary from some our European colleagues. Please go to our SRF website...

to learn how to make a contribution to further this effort (even $100 would be a welcome demonstration that you are sympathetic to our cause and are willing to stand up and be counted).

Finally, if you love trees as well as people, please plan to visit the Methuselah Grove yourself (before the snows come in November) with its compelling testimony to the versatility of biological adaptation to one of the cruelest of environments on Earth.