Saturday, July 24, 2010

Of Kilos, Aesop and Trees

Discussing weight loss with dietician Simone, she made the observation that slow and steady weight loss in small measures is preferable to quick weight loss in larger amounts. This may come as a shock to fans of Biggest Loser or for those on a crash diet for a forthcoming event, but it is based on the principle that slow, sustained weight loss will be more likely to last than a crash diet.

In that discussion the moral of the Aesop’s Fable of the tortoise and the hare was mentioned – “slow and steady wins the race” – but I confess that I have had problems with that story from when I first heard it as a child. Everyone knows that the tortoise won the race because the tortoise kept travelling when the overconfident hare slept. But:

- Why did the tortoise challenge hare to the foot race? He did not know that the hare would sleep. Did he seriously expect to win?

- Why did the hare accept the challenge? The hare must have known that he would defeat the tortoise easily so what would have been the glory in that?

- Finally, what is the value of a life instruction that relies on a one in a million chance for success?

I mentioned an alternative analogy to Simone, which she also thought more appropriate for the weight loss scenario: the quickest growing trees have the shortest lifespans eg wattles, conversely slow growing trees live for much longer periods.

Afterwards I started wondering about the ages of the world’s oldest living trees. Did the gum trees on the shores of Botany Bay witness the arrival of the First Fleet?  Are there trees as old as the Ents (above) in Lord of the Rings?

It turns out that there are.

Until 1957 the Giant Sequoias of Northern America, a species of redwood, at 2,000 years old, were believed to be the world’s oldest living trees. They are also the world’s largest trees.

(Click on photo to enlarge)
In 1957, however, Edmund Schulman counted growth rings from core samples from selected trees to establish their ages. He found that the oldest living tree was a bristlecone pine, located at a place called White Mountain in California. The tree was 4,838 years old and was not only the world’s oldest tree, it was also the world’s oldest living non-clonal organism. The tree was named Methuselah, after the figure in the Bible who lived to 969 years.

When the pyramids were being built and Moses was wandering in the wilderness, Methusaleh was already growing in a place that would one day become California.
Schulman found over a dozen bristlecone pines over 4,000 years old. The grove is known as the Methuselah Grove and it is located within The Forest of the Ancients. The location has been kept secret to prevent vandalism, hence there are no photographs available of the Methuselah tree.

A bristlecone pine similar to the Methusaleh tree.

In 1964 Donald R Currey, a graduate student, was also investigating tree ages, likewise by taking core samples. Whilst taking such a sample from a tree named Prometheus, his boring tool broke and remained inside the tree. Currey sought approval from the US Forest Service to cut down the tree, consent being surprisingly given.

When the tree was examined, Prometheus was found to have been 5,000 years old. Had Currey not killed it, Prometheus would have been the world’s oldest tree.

Australia has its own old trees, the Huon Pines. These trees can reach ages in excess of 2,000 years, with only the bristlecone pines exceeding them in age. Not long ago a stand of Huon Pines discovered at Mt Read in Tasmania gained international attention. Numbering several hundred in number, they were found to be all male and all with the same tree DNA. Huon Pine pollen was found to be present in the bottom sediments of the nearby Lake Johnston, carbon dating established the pollen as being at least 10.500 years old. There are no other Huon Pines within 20km of Mt Read and no female trees anywhere in the area. (Does this sound like the story of the Ents?)

It has been concluded that at least 10,500 years ago a male Huon Pine became established at Mt Read and that ever since it has been propagating itself, probably by “layering” whereby a branch becomes weighed down by snow or partly broken by wind, comes in contact with the soil and sends down roots, creating a new tree. This means that although individual trees may be between 1,000 – 2,000 years old, the organism itself is at least 10,000 years old.  

Huon Pine at Mt Read (Photo by Chris Bell - click on photo to enlarge).

In contrast to a colony of separate trees, the oldest cloned colony with a common root system is that of Pando (or The Trembling Giant) in Utah.  That colony is estimated to be 80,000 years old, although it is believed that other colonies in the State may be as old as one million years.

The oldest living  individual cloned tree is Old Tjikko (below), a 9,550 year old Norway Spruce tree, located on FulufjÀllet Mountain of Dalarna province in Sweden.

As for the gum trees on the shores of Botany Bay, eucalpytus trees have an average lifespan of 200-400 years.

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