Protect these astonishing time-travelling plants
They’re the world's oldest living things – so why are they not universally protected?
They have survived for millennia, yet most don’t look a day over 1,500 years old. Award-winning artist Rachel Sussman argues why UNESCO must act to preserve our most enduring, and often eerie, living relics.
The oldest living things have borne witness to the entirety of human history. They pre-date the wheel and cuneiform —inventions that mark the birth of civilisation— which emerged about 5,500 years ago, the same age as the Antarctic moss on Elephant Island. The 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak in the industrial sprawl of Riverside, California, lived through the die-off of giant reptiles, birds, and mammals that seem more like the stuff of science fiction, such as giant condors, mastodons, sabre-toothed tigers, and even the last of the camels that once roamed North America.
Working with biologists, I travelled the world to photograph these continuously living organism of 2,000 years old and older. Photography is the ideal medium to capture them: thousands of years of a life, distilled down to small fractions of a second.
Some, like the stromatolites – a unique amalgam of living, biologic matter and geologic, non-living sediments – are credited with oxygenating our atmosphere. Today, the oldest living stromatolites are up to 3,000 years old, and still behaving in much the same fashion as their ancestors of 3.5 billion years past among dozens of other phenomena.
All of these organisms are living palimpsests: they contain myriad layers of their own histories within themselves, along with records of natural and human events; new chapters written over the old, year after year, millennium after millennium.
How have these organisms lived so long? And why? Scientists know some of these answers on an individual level, but the scientific discipline of analysing comparative longevity across species is so new it doesn’t yet exist.
We don’t yet know if, or how, this tantalising staying power might be applied to human life spans. But not all these ancient subjects flirt with immortality, we’ve also lost two of them in the past five years alone.
Surely, it is time for UNESCO designations to be bestowed upon each and every one of these organisms. They deserve our respect and attention. These organisms are global symbols that transcend the things that divide us.
On every continent these ancient survivors have weathered the millennia in some of the world’s most extreme environments, enduring ice ages, geologic shifts, and humans’ spread across the planet. Many are so small that you could walk right over them, none the wiser. Others are so large that you can’t help but stand in awe before them. I’ve photographed thirty different species, ranging from lichens in Greenland that grow only one centimetre every hundred years, to unique desert shrubs in Africa and South America, a predatory fungus in Oregon, brain coral in the Caribbean and an 80,000-year-old colony of aspen in Utah. I journeyed to Antarctica for 5,500-year-old moss, and to Tasmania for a 43,600-year-old clonal shrub that is the last individual of its kind, rendering it simultaneously critically endangered and theoretically immortal.
Other individuals in this ancient club move at a more geologic pace: there are living shrubs, clonal forests, sea grass meadows, and bacteria that predate the last ice age by tens of thousands of years, and in some cases, predate the human race altogether.
The Antarctic beeches that now live in Queensland, Australia, for instance, used to populate Antarctica in its milder days . . . 180 million years ago. As the Gondwana landmass broke apart and the south got colder, the Antarctic beeches worked themselves northward to more suitable climes. Their original habitat was disappearing around them, leading to certain death, so, not unlike contemporary climate refugees, the Antarctic beeches had to find a new place to call home. It’s hard enough for people to uproot themselves and make new homes in new lands. Imagine the perseverance and the cooperation over generations it would require for trees to make such a journey in the name of self-preservation. Plants move around on their own volition much more than you might think. Root by root, the Antarctic beeches pointed themselves in the direction they needed to go. Their oldest surviving progeny are 13,000 years old.
What is the oldest continuously living thing in the world? We currently believe it to be the Siberian Actinobacteria, living underground in the permafrost, clocking in between 400,000 and 600,000 years old. The colony was discovered by a team of planetary biologists looking for clues to life on other planets by investigating one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Over the course of their investigation, they found that these remarkable bacteria are actually doing DNA repair at temperatures below freezing, meaning that they are not dormant; they have been alive and slowly growing for half a million years.
Together, we must ensure their protection for the next half million!
For more information visit rachelsussman.com
A spokesperson for UNESCO told UNLIMITED: “The idea of a “World Heritage species” has been proposed in the past by scholars, but this would need a revision of the World Heritage Convention, including a new ratification by all States Parties. The convention aims to protect sites of both natural and cultural sites of Outstanding Universal Value, which match one of ten cultural and natural criteria.
However, the World Heritage nomination process can be used to protect sites, which harbour important endemic or rare species. The World Heritage List includes already many important sites, which constitute the habitat of rare and endangered species.”