Sitting among a small copse of pine trees on Nevada’s Wheeler Peak are the remains of a tree once known as “Prometheus” which, while it lived, was thought to be almost 5,000 years old. It was felled thanks to the careless hubris of an over-eager scientist.
The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine was known alternately as Prometheus and WPN-114. It once sat among its similarly large brethren, having been growing for well over 4,000 years, longer than any other non-clonal organism on the planet (or so they thought at the time). While there were giant plant systems that had been known to have lived for up to 40,000 years or more thanks to a system of self-replication and replacement—meaning that no part of the organism was ever as old as the whole—Prometheus had survived and grown from a sapling for thousands of years.
Unfortunately in the 1960s a researcher searching for the world’s oldest trees came across Prometheus’ grove. The graduate student received permission to take a sample from the trunk, but his borer jammed in the ancient wood. He cut the tree down to retrieve the tool, and upon counting the rings realized his historic mistake; he had felled a tree older than any other ever cut down. Controversy swirled around the event and the errant grad student, but in the end the parks department simply upped their security around the other ancient bristlecone pines.
Today the remains of the tree can still be found on Wheeler Peak, cracked and separated, but ancient and kind of sad all the same.