Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin bristlecone pine, is a long-living species of tree found in the higher mountains of the southwest United States. The species is one of three closely related trees known as bristlecone pines and is sometimes known as the Intermountain or Western bristlecone pine. One member of this species, at 5065 years old, is the oldest known living non-clonal organism on Earth.
It is a medium-size tree, reaching 5 to 15 m (16 to 49 ft) tall and with a trunk diameter of up to 2.5 to 3.6 m (8 ft 2 in to 11 ft 10 in). The bark is bright orange-yellow, thin and scaly at the base of the trunk. The leaves ('needles') are in fascicles of five, stout, 2.5 to 4 cm (0.98 to 1.57 in) long, deep green to blue-green on the outer face, with stomata confined to a bright white band on the inner surfaces. The leaves show the longest persistence of any plant, with some remaining green for 45 years (Ewers & Schmid 1981).
These ancient trees have a gnarled and stunted appearance, especially those found at high altitudes, and have reddish-brown bark with deep fissures. As the tree ages, much of its vascular cambium layer may die. In very old specimens, often only a narrow strip of living tissue connects the roots to a handful of live branches.
The cones are ovoid-cylindrical, 5 to 10 cm (2.0 to 3.9 in) long and 3 to 4 cm (1.2 to 1.6 in) broad when closed, green or purple at first, ripening orange-buff when 16 months old, with numerous thin, fragile scales, each scale with a bristle-like spine 2 to 5 mm (0.079 to 0.197 in) long. The cones open to 4 to 6 cm (1.6 to 2.4 in) broad when mature, releasing the seeds immediately after opening. The seeds are 5 mm (0.20 in) long, with a 12 to 22 mm (0.47 to 0.87 in) wing; they are mostly dispersed by the wind, but some are also dispersed by Clark's nutcrackers.
The tree is extremely vulnerable to fire, and is damaged by even low-intensity burns. The resinous bark is capable of igniting quickly, and a crown fire will almost certainly kill the tree. However, populations of Pinus longaeva are known to be extremely resilient, and as a primary succession species, it is believed that populations of the tree would reestablish itself quickly after a fire. That said, large-scale fires are extremely uncommon where the species grows, and are not a major factor in the species' long-term viability.
A specimen of this species, located in the White Mountains of California was measured by Tom Harlan to be 5,062 years old in 2012. The identity of the specimen is being kept secret by Harlan. This is the oldest known tree in North America, and the oldest known individual tree in the world, although a clonal individual, nicknamed "Old Tjikko", a Norway spruce in Sweden is 9,550 years old.
The previously oldest named specimen of this species, "Methuselah", is also located in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains. Methuselah is 4,844 years old, as measured by annual ring count on a small core taken with an increment borer. Its exact location is also kept secret.
Among the White Mountain specimens, the oldest trees are found on north-facing slopes, with an average of 2,000 years, as compared to the 1,000 year average on the southern slopes. The climate and the durability of their wood can preserve them long after death, with dead trees as old as 7,000 years persisting next to live ones.[