Ancient Trees Are Key to Healthy Forests, Scientists Say

Ancient trees help keep forests alive by passing on their experience and hardiness to other trees and plants in the forest. They also better sequester carbon dioxide than trees of average age and provide shelter for endangered species.

Apr. 26, 2022
By Costas Vasilopoulos

Recent News

The planet’s forests rely on a small group of ancient trees to sur­vive and with­stand envi­ron­men­tal changes and other per­ils, new research has found.

However, these long-lived trees can only repro­duce in primeval forests and are cur­rently threat­ened by cli­mate change and defor­esta­tion.

Once you cut down old and ancient trees, we lose the genetic and phys­i­o­log­i­cal legacy that they con­tain for­ever, as well as the unique habi­tat for nature con­ser­va­tion.- Chuck Cannon, dirc­tor, cen­ter for tree sci­ence at the Morton Arboretum

Scientists from the University of Barcelona, Tuscia University in Italy and the Morton Arboretum in the United States used a math­e­mat­i­cal prob­a­bil­ity model to assess the num­ber of trees that exceed the aver­age age of other trees in a for­est.

They also ana­lyzed data from pre­vi­ous stud­ies to under­stand how these ancient trees affect the rest of the flora in the ecosys­tem.

See Also:Millenary Olive Tree Destroyed in Sardinian Wildfires

In their study, pub­lished in Nature Plants, the researchers noted that ancient trees account for less than one per­cent of the tree pop­u­la­tion in a for­est and can reach 10 or even 20 times the age of other trees in the wood­land.

Despite their rar­ity, how­ever, the forest’s vet­er­ans are vital to pre­serv­ing the health and bio­di­ver­sity of forestry ecosys­tems.


The chances are that trees that achieve excep­tional longevity might pass on their genetic resilience to new gen­er­a­tions of trees in their vicin­ity, enabling them to deal with their alter­ing envi­ron­ment and pur­sue con­tin­u­ance.

We exam­ined the demo­graphic pat­terns that emerge from old-growth forests over thou­sands of years, and a very small pro­por­tion of trees emerge as life-his­tory lot­tery win­ners’ that reach far higher ages that bridge envi­ron­men­tal cycles that span cen­turies,” said Chuck Cannon, the direc­tor of the cen­ter for tree sci­ence at the Morton Arboretum and one of the study’s authors.

In our mod­els, these rare, ancient trees prove to be vital to a forest’s long-term adap­tive capac­ity, sub­stan­tially broad­en­ing the tem­po­ral span of the pop­u­la­tion’s over­all genetic diver­sity,” he added.

The sci­en­tists added that the advan­ta­geous traits of cen­ten­nial and mil­len­nial trees are not lim­ited to pre­vent­ing the wear and tear of aging. They also out­per­form typ­i­cal mature trees in absorb­ing car­bon diox­ide and pro­vide a unique habi­tat for endan­gered species.

The researchers also said that ancient trees do not fol­low a nat­ural life cycle sim­i­lar to other plant species or even humans; instead, their exis­tence is mainly due to ran­dom events such as dis­ease or fire.

Mature, well-estab­lished trees are not pro­grammed to senesce at a par­tic­u­lar size or age,” they wrote. “[They] die in con­se­quence of seri­ous dam­age due to exter­nal biotic and abi­otic fac­tors, such as pests and dis­eases, fires, wind and ice storms, or sus­tained poor envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions.”

However, the exis­tence of old-growth trees is threat­ened by cli­mate change and defor­esta­tion, and no phys­i­cal mech­a­nism exists to replace the loss of their parental pres­ence in the for­est.

As the cli­mate changes, it is likely that mor­tal­ity rates in trees will increase, and it will become increas­ingly dif­fi­cult for ancient trees to emerge in forests,” Cannon said. Once you cut down old and ancient trees, we lose the genetic and phys­i­o­log­i­cal legacy that they con­tain for­ever, as well as the unique habi­tat for nature con­ser­va­tion.”

The researchers finally noted that, while for­est restora­tion is an essen­tial tool to pre­serve ecosys­tems, it is also cru­cial to pro­tect the forest’s elders and pre­serve the evo­lu­tion­ary his­tory writ­ten into them.

Ancient trees are known to be unique bio­di­ver­sity hubs that pro­vide key or unique ecosys­tem func­tions unpar­al­leled by man­aged forests,” they said.

Losing these trees is like species extinc­tion, in that an irre­place­able genetic resource is being lost,” the researchers con­cluded. For all of these rea­sons, old-growth forests with their unique stock of ancient trees are becom­ing increas­ingly impor­tant to pro­tect.”


Related Articles

Feedback / Suggestions