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Climate Change Alters Bristlecone Pine Growth

The bristlecone pine, a striking tree with its gnarled branches, can live up to 5,000 years, making it the world’s oldest living organism.

It’s also the Nevada State Tree.

But a new study out of California is raising concerns. The study found that rising temperatures have allowed another tree species, which normally doesn't grow above the tree line where the bristlecone pines make their home, to establish itself in the bristlecone's habitat.

Brian Smithers is a doctoral student at the University of California-Davis. He's been studying the change. He wanted to make it clear that the bristlecone pine is not threatened or in any danger of going extinct in the short term.

“We’re not really sure ... what that will mean for the future, but for right now there seems to be a pretty big shift going on at that tree line forest from bristlecone pine forest to one mostly dominated by limber pine,” he said.

Smithers said he started his research after noticing small, young limber pines in bristlecone pine forests that usually aren't home to that type of tree.

“You walk around these beautiful, very old bristlecone pines growing right at tree line, and you’ll notice there sure are a lot of young trees there, but they’re not bristlecone pine, they’re another species,” he said.

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He said there is also growing evidence that lots of different tree species are moving from normal habitats to areas they have never been before.

"We’re definitely seeing now these result of climate change," Smithers said. "We can stop talking about climate change effects as being a future-tense situation. We’re seeing on the landscape now, certainly in these forest trees."

The impact of the limber pine into areas normally reserved for bristlecone pine on the larger environment isn't known at the moment, Smithers said.

Smithers said there is really no way to stop the migration of the limber pine species, besides addressing greenhouse gas emissions. He said humans really can't manage where a species is going take up root and where it isn't.

As for the bristlecone pine itself, Smithers isn't concerned about it disappearing because of climate change.

"It has seen it all," he said of the ancient pine tree. "I don’t have concerns for the species, but it is an interesting example of how species are responding differentially to climate change than we might expect."


Brian Smithers, doctoral student, University of California-Davis

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