Earth’s Oldest Trees in Climate-Induced Race up the Tree Line
Bristlecone Pine Trees in Great Basin Are Losing Game of Leapfrog With Limber Pine
- Tree-line species are shifting in the Great Basin of the United States
- Limber pine trees are ‘leapfrogging,’ slowly, over ancient bristlecone pines upslope
- If limber pine trees block bristlecones from advancing upslope, bristlecones could face local extirpations
Bristlecone pine and limber pine trees in the Great Basin region are like two very gnarled, old men in a slow-motion race up the mountaintop, and climate change is the starting gun, according to a study from the University of California, Davis.
The study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, shows that the tree line has been steadily moving upslope over the past 50 years in the Great Basin. The region extends from California’s Sierra Nevada, across Nevada to Utah’s Uinta Mountains. Its north and south are framed by the Columbia and Colorado rivers’ watersheds.
The study also found that limber pine is successfully “leapfrogging” over bristlecone pine. They are growing in soils once almost completely dominated by bristlecone pine, and they are moving upslope at a faster rate than the bristlecone pine.
“We are seeing very little regeneration anywhere in bristlecone ranges except in the tree line and, there, limber pine is taking all the good spots,” said the study’s corresponding author Brian Smithers, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. “It’s jarring because limber pine is a species you normally see further downslope, not at tree line. So it’s very odd to see it charging upslope and not see bristlecone charging upslope ahead of limber pine, or at least with it.”