There are living things on the Earth, both plants and animals, that have survived tens of thousands of years of slow and often violent change in the world. Yet, despite their seeming permanence and immortality, these ancient living things could soon disappear, if humans don’t intervene to protect them.
That is the contention of Brooklyn photographer and conceptual artist Rachel Sussman, who has spent a decade finding and documenting the oldest living things in the world.
Beginning with “Year Zero” or the beginning of the current era/AD, Sussman looked backward to find continuously living plants and organisms that are older than 2000 years old. In the process, she has worked with more than 30 scientists to identify a master list of living things that need to be documented before they disappear. The project has seen her travel from the far reaches of Antarctica for a barely documented species of moss to Siberia to document a half-million year-old colony of bacteria — Actinobacteria — that live in the permafrost.
When asked how many of the plants and organisms she documented were in danger, Sussman didn’t hesitate.
“All of them,” she told Business Insider. “We’re past the 11th hour.”
In just the last five years, two of the 30 subjects that Sussman documented with her photographs have disappeared, both because of direct human interference. The first was a 13,000-year-old underground baobab forest in Pretoria, South Africa that was bulldozed to make way for a road.
A 3,500 year-old Cypress tree in Orlando, Florida nicknamed “The Senator” was burned down by a woman smoking meth in the hollow of the tree.
Most of the plants are difficult to find. Many are located in harsh environments that are difficult to travel to, while the locations of others are kept secret to protect them from an onslaught of tourists who might not respect the fragility of the ageing plants.
Sussman shared some photos from the project with us here, but you can check out the rest in her new book, The Oldest Living Things In The World.
This 9,950-year-old Spruce tree is the oldest single tree in the world. Located on a mountain in Sweden, the tree’s root system has stayed alive for so long because it can sprout a new trunk when an old one dies. Sussman calls the tree “a portrait of climate change” because of how it has changed in recent years. For the majority of its lifespan, the tree has appeared in a “shrub formation,” but over the last century it has begun to grow directly up like a traditional tree. The new growth seems to have been caused by higher temperatures in the area.
This 5,500-year-old Antarctic Moss was incredibly hard to find. Researchers had last seen it 25 years prior, but due to the imprecision of navigating the area before GPS, it was ultimately lost. Sussman worked with the Polar Geospatial Center to get satellite maps of the area that helped identify potential locations of the moss. Travelling aboard the National Geographic Expedition, Sussman worked with explorer Peter Hilary to find and identify the illusive moss.
Sussman heard about this 2,000+ year-old llareta in the Atacama Desert, Chile from an internet commenter who had spotted her work on Flickr. The llareta is a dense flowering shrub related to parsley, which lives in extremely high elevations. There are many llaretas over 2,000 years old. They live so long because they grow slowly — only 1.5 centimeters per year — and are adapted to nutritionally-poor environments.
This 100,000-year-old sea grass meadow is located in a UNESCO-protected waterway between the islands of Ibiza and Formentera, near Spain. The Posidonia oceanica meadow is a clonal colony, meaning that plants reproduce asexually from a single ancestor and contain the same genetic material. To view the meadow, Sussman traveled with scientists doing field work in the area.
To find this 13,000-year-old Eucalyptus tree, Sussman had to find her own way after meeting an Australian researcher in Perth who handed her a branch cutting of a cloned version of the tree. The researcher gave her general directions and told her to find the right specimen by matching leaves on the cutting to those of the tree. Sussman declined to reveal the species name because it might hint too heavily at its location. There are fewer than five left of its kind on Earth.
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