Table mountain pine trees line a cliff ledge at The Nature Conservancy's Pike Knob Preserve in Pendleton County.
CIRCLEVILLE, W.Va. -- Ancient trees are not always towering giants, as pictured in postcard scenes of old-growth California redwoods with car-accommodating tunnels hacked through their massive trunks.The world's oldest living table mountain pine is a case in point. The 271-year-old specimen was recently discovered during a study on the history of fire on The Nature Conservancy of West Virginia's Pike Knob Preserve in Pendleton County.Another example is the oldest-known eastern red cedar, a 940-year-old, now-dead tree identified several years ago at nearby Smoke Hole Canyon, and used in a recent study on regional drought during the past millennium.West Virginia's ancient trees are "stunted and bonsai-like," said Tom Saladyga, an assistant professor of geography at Concord University, who took part in the Pike Knob fire study. "They kind of go against people's thoughts about what trees in an old-growth forest should look like."
"They're gnarly and weathered and not that big," said Amy Hessl, an associate professor of geography at West Virginia University, who was involved in both studies. "They look like they've been through a lot, and yet they're beautiful in their own way. And the archive of environmental information they contain is such a rare and useful commodity for scientists."The fire study at Pike Knob involved taking core samples from cliff dwelling table mountain pines, a short-needled evergreen species sometimes known as the prickly pine, due to the sharp, hooked spines attached to its cones. Table mountain pines can be found along dry, rocky ridge tops from northern Pennsylvania to eastern Tennessee, where they live to a relatively advanced age due in part to being difficult to reach and to the fact that their squat, gnarled profile makes them an undesirable lumber species.Table mountain pines are more likely to survive fires than other species since they grow in relative isolation on rocky terrain where fuel for maintaining an extended burn is scarce."By coring these trees and looking at what years fire scars showed up, researchers can figure how frequent fires were and where they happened," said Rodney Bartgis, director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.The Pike Knob study determined, among other things, that most fire activity occurred between 1880 and 1920, when human activity such as land clearing and logging was at its peak in the area. One effect of the fire activity was to open up areas for pine seedlings to establish themselves.The Pike Knob Preserve is home to the continent's southernmost natural stand of red pines, which were also involved in the fire survey.Growth rings found in core segments were cross-dated, or matched to previously established regional growth patterns representing known historic periods. That work was done in a laboratory months after coring took place in the field."It was surprising to find that we had a tree that old" in the study's random sampling of table mountain pines, Saladyga said. "Based on size and appearance, you can't really tell how old a tree is. One that may look old to you can turn out to be only 50 years old."According to Eastern Oldlist, a database for long-lived trees in Eastern North America maintained by the Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research Inc. and the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the 271-year-old Pike Knob table mountain pine is 21 years older than the previous record-holder -- a resident of Avery County, N.C.In addition to revealing the ages of trees, growth rings provide scientists with data on climate changes that occurred during a tree's lifetime. Since the U.S. government did not begin systematically recording climate data until the 1890s, ancient trees can shed new light on old climate trends.By studying the growth rings of long-lived species like the eastern red cedars that occupy the dry, rocky soil of the Smoke Hole Canyon region, Hessl and her colleagues have been able to track drought data for the Potomac River watershed back to the 1200s and beyond.
While precipitation in the region has been trending upward during the past two centuries, despite occasional dry spells, droughts that lasted for decades could be traced in the growth rings of the older eastern red cedars cored for the Smoke Hole study. Most of that work took place on land where The Nature Conservancy held conservation easements.Hessl said researchers found several eastern red cedars in the 800-year-old range, and were tipped to an even older dead cedar on nearby private property. That tree, according to the Eastern Oldlist, lived to be 940 years old, making it the oldest eastern red cedar in its database.While late 19th and early 20th-century timbering eliminated all but a few remnants of West Virginia's old growth forest, "It's nice to know we didn't destroy it all," Bartgis said.The oldest trees found in eastern North America, according to Eastern Oldlist, are a 1,653-year-old northern white cedar, found in Ontario, and a 1,622-year-old North Carolina bald cypress.Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.