On a cliff in Italy’s Pollino National Park stands a sparse pine tree with a dead crown and a decaying trunk. The tree has seen better days, but we can forgive its rough appearance; as Elizabeth Preston reports for Discovery, this craggy conifer was recently identified as the oldest known tree in Europe.
Gianluca Piovesan and his fellow researchers at the Università della Tuscia spent three years sampling trees in Pollino National Park, which is located in a remote region that is home to thousands of Heldreich’s pine trees. Previous studies conducted in the park had identified pines that were close to 1,000 years in age, which prompted the researchers to wonder if they could find even older specimens, according to a study published recently in Ecology.
When researchers spotted a rough looking tree jutting out from a cliff face, they suspected it might date back several centuries. Testing this idea, however, was difficult. A large chunk of the trunk had decayed and the inner-most rings of the tree—which would have revealed vital information about its age—were gone.
“The inner part of the wood was like dust—we never saw anything like it,” team member Alfredo Di Filippo tells Sandrine Ceurstemont of National Geographic. “There were at least 20 centimeters of wood missing, which represents a lot of years.”
Researchers decided to perform radiocarbon dating on exposed sections of the pine’s roots, which helped them determine when the tree germinated. They also cross-dated surviving ring patterns in the trunk with ring patterns in the roots. (Trees’ roots also produce rings, but at a different rate from their trunks). Piecing all of this information together, the team was able to determine that the pine is 1,230 years old.
The elderly arbor, which has been nicknamed Italus, is about 155 years older than the 1,075-year-old Bosnian pine in Greece that previously held the title of Europe’s most senior tree. But Italus is a mere sapling compared to the Great Basin bristlecone pines in California and Nevada, some of which are more than 5,000 years old.
It may not be much to look at, but Italus is faring quite well. Its rings have been widening over the past two decades, which indicates that it is growing and that environmental conditions are good—even though heat waves in Europe have been damaging other forests in the region. According to Ceurstemont, the tree may be growing nicely thanks to a cool microclimate in Pollino National Park, or perhaps because European laws have led to a decrease in pollution.
“It’s difficult [to say for certain], because there are few studies about the impact of warm periods on Mediterranean boreal ecosystems,” Piovesan tells Ceurstemont.
Throughout its many years, Italus has weathered various shifts in climate, including a cold period in the Middle Ages and various droughts. Scientists are therefore keen to learn more about Italus and other centuries-old trees, which may offer clues about how forests will fare as the climate continues to change in the future.