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Tough Times for Bristlecones

Tough Times for Bristlecones

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Thursday, April 11, 2019/Categories: natural history, wildlife conservation, video, sustainability, environment, climate change

        A Grove of Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains, California (credit: Wikicommons/Rick Goldwaser)

Bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) are iconic trees of mountains in the western US, particularly desert ranges in the Great Basin of Nevada and California. Bristlecones inhabit the timberline and alpine zones of the mountains where they are the dominant pine. The groves contain some of the oldest trees on Earth with some individuals having germinated 4000 to nearly 5000 years ago. Many of these ancient trees are at the elevational limit of their ecological habitat. As climate change accelerates, it is important to understand how trees such as these will adapt or not. 

The White Mountains where many bristlecones grow is cold, dry, and windy and the pines appear in patchy groves across the landscape. Climate change is testing their tolerance to the limit but they have adapted to changes in the past, evolved adaptations, and survived. However, as atmospheric temperatures warm around their mountain tops, young bristlecone seedlings may secuum while other conifers, particularly limber pines (Pinus flexilis), may begin colonizing their habitat.

Brian Smithers, a forest ecologist at Montana State University, is conducting field studies to answer questions about the ecological sustainability and tolerance of these ancient and beautiful trees.



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