Total Eclipse: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Festival of Science, Music, and Celestial Wonder. August 19–21, 2017 in Eastern Oregon.

The Oldest Living Things in the World

Fifteen places to find some of the most ancient life on Earth.

On every continent on the planet you can find ancient lifeforms that have been living for thousands, or in some cases tens of thousands of years, their lifespans varying wildly depending on the type of organism.

Many of these are trees. Earth is dotted with ancient trees representing the oldest individual examples of their species, the most elderly of which have been around for between 2,000 and 5,000 years, providing food and shade for some of the earliest human civilizations.

But the real longevity champions of the plant world are clonal colonies. These vegetation systems repopulate by self-replication so no part of the system is ever as old as the whole, but are all genetically identical and thus considered a single organism, often sharing a single root system. Such colonies can live to remarkably old ages, the oldest clocking in at 80,000 years—around the time our Paleolithic ancestors lived in caves and were just starting to migrate beyond Africa.

Similarly, networked organisms like fungi live significantly longer than individual plants or animals. These impressive mushrooms are not only among the most ancient but are also the largest organisms in the world, eating their way across thousands of acres of forest.

As for the animal kingdom, the lifespans of terrestrial animals—the oldest of which tend to be tortoises, topping out around 200 years old—pale in comparison to sea creatures living deep in the ocean. Aquatic organisms like sponges and coral may lack classic body parts like a head, heart, neurons, muscles, or major organs, but are considered animals because unlike plants they don’t make their own food but rather feed off other microorganisms. While it’s difficult to measure the exact age of these primitive lifeforms, the oldest are believed to be around 10,000 years old.

Deep-sea living does wonders for longevity. So does being frozen for extended periods of time. The oldest living organism of them all, bacteria discovered in the Siberian permafrost, still contained active and living DNA from a staggering half-a-million years ago.

These ancient creatures are a rare and fascinating peek at the history of life itself. From Greece’s ancient olive tree to Antarctica’s volcano sponge, here are 15 of the oldest living things in the world.


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