Researchers might have just identified the oldest living tree in Europe: a Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii) that has been growing in the highlands of northern Greece since 941 AD, making it at least 1,075 years old.
While the find is just plain awesome in itself, the team says the tree – which they’ve named Adonis – might offer a unique glimpse into the region’s climate history, allowing them to better understand how the environment around it has changed over the past millennium.
"Many years ago I read a thesis about this very interesting forest in Greece. In our research, we try to build long chronologies to construct climate histories, so finding living trees of old age is one of our motivations," said team leader Paul Krusic from Stockholm University in Sweden.
The tree was discovered during a research expedition aimed at examining the effects of climate change in a forest near Greece’s Pindos Mountains. It's been dated using dendrochronology - a method that involves counting the rings inside a sample of the tree’s trunk.
"To age the tree, we needed to take a core of wood, from the outside to the centre. The core is 1 metre (3.2 feet) and has 1,075 annual rings," Krusic explained.
He also said the sample used to count the rings wasn’t taken from the base of the tree, meaning that it might be even older, though he can’t say for sure how much.
The cool thing is Adonis isn’t alone. The team reports that there are about a dozen other trees nearby that are also over 1,000 years old, with Adonis being the most ancient.
While reaching that age is impressive enough, the team says it's also notable that the forest has been relatively untouched in a region that's been occupied by humans for thousands of years.
"It is quite remarkable that this large, complex, and impressive organism has survived so long in such an inhospitable environment, in a land that has been civilised for over 3,000 years," Krusic said.
"I am impressed, in the context of western civilisation, all the human history that has surrounded this tree; all the empires, the Byzantine, the Ottoman, all the people living in this region. So many things could have led to its demise," he added. "Fortunately, this forest has been basically untouched for over a thousand years."
To put that age into perspective, the team compared Adonis’ life to historical events. So when Adonis was a mere seedling in 941 AD, the Byzantine Empire was at its peak. When Adonis was 100 years old, the first written description of gunpowder was drafted in China.
Jumping ahead, in 1691, when Adonis was 750 years old, Isaac Newton was formulating his laws of motion. When Adonis celebrated its 1,000th birthday, Greece was under Nazi occupation during World War II.
That’s a lot of history for something to live through.
It’s even crazier that Adonis is a baby compared to other trees researchers have found around the world.
In 2008, researchers in Sweden discovered a conifer that has a 9,550-year-old root system, though the stems or trunks that grow from it only live for about 600 years before dying off and growing again.
In the US, a pine tree known as Methuselah in the Inyo National Forest in California is thought to be about 4,600 years old, meaning it was a likely a seedling when the ancient Egyptians were constructing the pyramids.
The researchers are expected to publish their findings on Adonis in the coming months, and hopefully then we'll have a better idea of what this incredible lifeform has to say about our shifting climate.