As I approached the hill’s summit, the rock outcropping came into view. It was the reported that an ice age artifact could be found here in the Jurupa Hills of Rubidoux, California. A few more steps and there it was—only a few hundred feet from a residential neighborhood. Why would scientists leave such an artifact out in the open where anybody could get to it? The reason: the relic is, in fact, a living 13,000-year-old tree. (You thought Methuselah lived a long time!)
A specimen of Quercus palmeri (Palmer’s oak) has been growing on that same hillside from a time when Mastodons, camels, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats roamed the area.1 Scientists were initially puzzled that a Palmer’s oak was growing at such a low elevation (1,300 feet above sea level) and in such a warm, dry climate. These trees normally grow at elevations at least double that of the one found in the Jurupa Hills.
This particular Palmer’s oak holds the distinction of being the oldest living plant in the world. It is at least 1,000 years older than the second-oldest plant—a creosote bush in Palm Springs, California2—and is 8,000 years older than the famous bristlecone pines near Bishop, California. Fire ravages the hills of Southern California an average of at least twice per century and the Palmer’s oak in Jurupa Hills shows signs of fire damage on several stems and trunks. Yet it survives due to its location between two large rock formations on the north side of the hill. If the oak is burned, it regenerates stems from the remaining crown.
So how do scientists know the Jurupa oak’s age? It was discovered about 10 years ago during routine cataloging and has been studied by University of California, Riverside scientists since that time. The oak actually consists of numerous similar-looking trunks that scientists thought had been derived from one original plant. To confirm their suspicions, scientists collected leaves from 32 out of the 70 plants and performed allozyme electrophoresis (a method of distinguishing between the enzyme profiles of genetically different individuals) to genotype 9 specific markers. The results confirmed that all the individual oaks were exact clones of each other. During a six year study at Jurupa Hills, researchers found that the individual oaks produced only four acorns, none of which could be germinated. So, the Jurupa oak proves sterile and can reproduce only through clonal expansion, which usually occurs when fires sweep over the hillside, burn the top vegetation, and force resprouting from the base. By counting tree rings, scientists were able to determine that the oaks grew at a rate of only 0.8 mm per year. Given the size of the stand, it must have taken an average of 15,600 ±2,500 years for the progenitor to expand from the center of the stand. If the original tree started off center from the current stand, its age would be much older.
How does a 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak fit in with the RTB creation model? First, the oldest living organism shows remarkable design, being able to survive radical changes in environment (from a frigid ice age to hot, desert-like conditions) and potentially hundreds of fires. Second, the discovery confirms the antiquity of the Earth as seen in the record of nature.
Mr. Richard Deem received his MS in Medical Microbiology from California State University of Los Angeles in 1979 and currently serves as a research scientist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.