Scientists Discovered a 2,624-Year-Old Tree in a North Carolina Swamp. Climate Change Could Kill It.

Bald cypress trees
Bald cypress trees
(Image: © Shutterstock)

A tree grows in North Carolina, and it has been growing there for a long, looooooong time.

According to a new study published today (May 9) in the journal Environmental Research Communications, scientists studying tree rings in North Carolina's Black River swampland have discovered a bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum) that's at least 2,624 years old, making it one of the oldest non-clonal, sexually reproducing trees in the world. (Clonal trees, which are vast colonies of genetically identical plants that grow from a single ancestor, can live for tens of thousands of years.)

How old is 2,624 years, really? To borrow an analogy from the Charlotte Observer, that age makes this tree older than Christianity, the Roman Empire and the English language.

Researchers discovered the ancient cypress while studying tree rings in an effort to piece together the climate history of the eastern United States. (In addition to marking a tree's age, the width and color of tree rings indicate how wet or dry a given year was). Because of previous fieldwork, the team knew that a particular stand of bald cypress trees in the Black River's Three Sisters Swamp was one of the oldest tree clusters in the country. That earlier research identified several trees between 1,000 and 1,650 years old. [Bristlecone Pines: Photos Reveal Some of Earth's Oldest Organisms]

The new study reveals that bald cypresses have even greater longevity than researchers previously thought. In addition to the 2,624-year-old individual reported above, the researchers found a 2,088-year-old cypress in the same swamp — and there are likely more where that came from.

"Because we have cored and dated only 110 living bald cypress at this site, a small fraction of the tens of thousands of trees still present in these wetlands, there could be several additional individual bald cypress over 2,000-years old along the approximately 100 km (62 mile) reach of Black River," the researchers wrote in the study.

According to the new study, bald cypress trees are now confirmed to be the oldest known wetland tree species on Earth. This discovery also makes the bald cypress the fifth-oldest species of non-clonal tree on Earth; only individual Sierra juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) trees, giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), alerces (Fitzroya cupressoides) and Great Basin bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) have been found to be older. The world's oldest bristlecone pine, located in the White Mountains of California, is 5,066 years old — roughly twice the age of the newfound cypress. The oldest clonal tree is thought to stand in the grove of quaking aspen trees known as Pando, in Utah.

Although the ancient trees described in this study live on protected land that is privately owned by The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina chapter, their existence remains threatened by ongoing logging and biomass farming operations (e.g., chopping down trees for mulch) elsewhere on the river, as well as by industrial pollution and climate change.According to the study authors, the swamp is located at 6.5 feet (2 meters) above mean sea level, and is at risk of being flooded by rising sea levels caused by anthropogenic global warming.

"The discovery of the oldest known living trees in eastern North America, which are in fact some of the oldest living trees on earth, provides powerful incentive for private, state, and federal conservation of this remarkable waterway," the authors concluded.

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 1 p.m. E.D.T. on May 10 to note that sea level rise due to anthropogenic climate change could cause  ancient bald cypress trees to be flooded.

Originally published on Live Science.