A new study from the University of Arkansas documents the oldest living trees in eastern North America, including one that is 2,624 years old.

In an article featured in the journal Environmental Research Communications, Prof. David Stahle, University of Arkansas' distinguished professor of geosciences, led a team in studying the ancient trees located along the Black River near Raleigh, North Carolina.

These trees are believed to be part of an intact ecosystem that covers much of the 65-mile of the river.

To find out how old the trees were, the researchers combined radiocarbon dating techniques with dendrochronology, which examines tree rings (growth rings).

Understanding Ancient Climate Conditions

The ancient trees also play a key role in helping scientists understand climate conditions during ancient times. The oldest species in the Black River preserve extend the paleoclimate record in the United States' southeast region by 900 years.

They also show evidence of natural disasters, such as flooding and droughts, that occurred during colonial and pre-colonial eras. The data that they have provided exceed any of those measured in the present day.

"It is exceedingly unusual to see an old-growth stand of trees along the whole length of a river like this," Stahle noted.

"Bald cypress are valuable for timber and they have been heavily logged. Way less than 1 percent of the original virgin bald cypress forests have survived."

Studying Bald Cypress Trees

Stahle has been studying bald cypress trees since the 1980s. In 1988, he was able to document specimens as old as 1,700 years.

His research has led to the preservation of a 16,000-acre area, which was later bought by The Nature Conservancy. The private group is known for its land-conservation efforts. Most of its holdings are kept open to the public.

Katherine Skinner, executive director of The Nature Conservancy's North Carolina chapter, said Stahle's work on ancient trees along the Black River helped start conservation in the area more than 20 years ago.

The ancient forest provides a glimpse of what the coastal plain in North Carolina might have looked like thousands of years ago. Not only is the area an important ecosystem, but it has also become a source of inspiration.

Without Stahle's work, Skinner said the trees might have been left unprotected and most likely destroyed.

The latest study sees Stahle and his colleagues use non-destructive core samples taken from more than 100 trees. These trees were located in a part of the wetland forest the researchers have not visited before.

Stahle said the area where the old growth bald cypress was found was 10 times larger than what they had expected. He and his team believe more samples of older trees can still be discovered.

While many of the ancient trees mentioned in the study are protected courtesy of The Nature Conservancy, some of the trees located elsewhere on the Black River continue to be threatened by logging and biomass farming operations. They are also vulnerable to the effects of climate change and industrial pollution.

The researchers said the discovery of the trees provides a compelling incentive for private, state, and federal conservation efforts.

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