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The Tallest Muir Woods Redwood Is Way Younger Than Scientists Expected

New dating studies show the tree is only 777 years old

(Adam Hester/Blend Images/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

In California’s Muir Woods National Monument, enormous redwoods tower over a peaceful shaded landscape. They’re among the world’s tallest, largest trees, and until recently they were counted among the oldest. But now, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Fimrite reports, that assessment is being challenged by scientists who have definitively determined the age of the forest’s tallest tree for the first time — and found that it’s half as old as previously expected.

Fimrite writes that scientists thought that a tree named Tree 76 would be the forest’s oldest since it’s the tallest in the neighborhood at 249 towering feet. Former estimates placed the tree’s origins sometimes around the medieval era 1,500 years ago. But when they compared the tree’s rings to samples from redwoods across California, they were shocked to find that it’s just 777 years old.

The dating was done by biologists working with the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative, a project sponsored by the Save The Redwoods League funds that’s looking for ways to better protect California’s impressive forests. Tree-ring specialist Allyson Carroll tells Fimrite that they’re trying to get samples from redwoods in multiple locations so they can compare their traits, understand historic weather patterns and identify redwood used in historic contexts like old buildings.

Tree 76 is located in an area of the National Monument known as Cathedral Grove, where some of the forest’s oldest and most impressive trees are gathered in an area John Muir called “the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” Cathedral Grove used to host a “walk-through tree” with a large empty space at its base, but it fell in the 1970s after suffering from the effects of foot traffic.

Emily Burns, science director of Save The Redwoods League, told the Los Angeles Times’ Joseph Serna that though Tree 76 is the forest’s tallest, it’s relatively young in the world of trees — the oldest coastal redwood is thought to be 2,520 years old and the oldest giant sequoia has it beat by another 680 years.

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