CIRCLEVILLE, W.Va. -- Ancient trees are not always towering giants, as pictured in postcard scenes of old-growth California redwoods with car-accommodating tunnels hacked through their massive trunks.
The world's oldest living table mountain pine is a case in point. The 271-year-old specimen was recently discovered during a study on the history of fire on The Nature Conservancy of West Virginia's Pike Knob Preserve in Pendleton County.
Another example is the oldest-known eastern red cedar, a 940-year-old, now-dead tree identified several years ago at nearby Smoke Hole Canyon, and used in a recent study on regional drought during the past millennium.
West Virginia's ancient trees are "stunted and bonsai-like," said Tom Saladyga, an assistant professor of geography at Concord University, who took part in the Pike Knob fire study. "They kind of go against people's thoughts about what trees in an old-growth forest should look like."
"They're gnarly and weathered and not that big," said Amy Hessl, an associate professor of geography at West Virginia University, who was involved in both studies. "They look like they've been through a lot, and yet they're beautiful in their own way. And the archive of environmental information they contain is such a rare and useful commodity for scientists."
The fire study at Pike Knob involved taking core samples from cliff dwelling table mountain pines, a short-needled evergreen species sometimes known as the prickly pine, due to the sharp, hooked spines attached to its cones. Table mountain pines can be found along dry, rocky ridge tops from northern Pennsylvania to eastern Tennessee, where they live to a relatively advanced age due in part to being difficult to reach and to the fact that their squat, gnarled profile makes them an undesirable lumber species.
Table mountain pines are more likely to survive fires than other species since they grow in relative isolation on rocky terrain where fuel for maintaining an extended burn is scarce.
"By coring these trees and looking at what years fire scars showed up, researchers can figure how frequent fires were and where they happened," said Rodney Bartgis, director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.
The Pike Knob study determined, among other things, that most fire activity occurred between 1880 and 1920, when human activity such as land clearing and logging was at its peak in the area. One effect of the fire activity was to open up areas for pine seedlings to establish themselves.
The Pike Knob Preserve is home to the continent's southernmost natural stand of red pines, which were also involved in the fire survey.