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Saving old trees can help save the world

Trees are living habitats that shelter animals, support interconnected systems of fungi, and absorb carbon from our atmosphere. Some old trees were alive when humans pressed the epic of Gilgamesh into soft clay tablets, and still shade our paths today. 

Trees supply us wood to build houses and paper to fill our landfills. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work out in the best interest of the trees. A review paper published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution highlights the importance of old trees and the threats they face.      

“Ancient trees are unique habitats for the conservation of threatened species because they can resist and buffer climate warming,” wrote the study authors, including Gianluca Piovesan and Charles H. Cannon. “Some of these trees, such as bristlecone pines in the White Mountains, USA, can live up to 5,000 years and act as massive carbon storage.”

Trees change their local habitats, increasing moisture levels and providing oxygen. Old trees are especially important, yet they are being quickly lost. The research points to the need for greater monitoring of this dire situation.   

“Mapping and monitoring old-growth forests and ancient trees can directly assess the effectiveness and sustainability of protected areas and their ecological integrity,” wrote the researchers. “To carry out this ambitious project, a global monitoring platform, based on advanced technologies, is required along with public contributions through community science projects.”

Genetic material could be collected from trees while forests and other ecosystems are protected. The hope is that if the individual trees are lost, their genetic contribution would still be preserved.

“The current review of the Convention of Biological Diversity and Sustainable Development Goal 15 ‘Life on Land’ of Agenda 2030 should include old-growth and ancient tree mapping and monitoring as key indicators of the effectiveness of protected areas in maintaining and restoring forest integrity for a sustainable future,” wrote the study authors.

“We call for international efforts to preserve these hubs of diversity and resilience. A global coalition utilizing advanced technologies and community scientists to discover, protect, and propagate ancient trees is needed before they disappear.”

If tree preservation is successful, people might look with awe at an ancient tree that’s been alive since people were writing and reading on laptops and tablets in the 2020s. 

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By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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