PALM SPRINGS — Along an unremarkable stretch of desert on the outskirts of town, just off a road named for singing cowboy Gene Autry and tucked amid heaps of garbage raked by winds strong enough to polish granite, Jim Cornett thinks he’s found the world’s oldest living thing.
Radiocarbon tests now under way may reveal the unassuming creosote bush sprouted 11,000 or more years ago, the scientist said, meaning it could rival in age another creosote bush growing 50 miles away in the Mojave Desert.
The scraggly creosote pales in comparison to the grandeur of well known ancients like the gnarled bristlecone pine and majestic coast redwood.
Seemingly more dead than alive, the bush isn’t big and certainly isn’t tall. It isn’t even very bushy.
“They’re not very exciting,” Cornett admitted to a visitor.
What the creosote bush is, Cornett is fairly certain, is ancient.
If confirmed, the bush — really a 38-foot, arrow-straight line of genetically identical bushes connected at the roots — could trump another creosote bush, dubbed “King Clone.” That bush, found in 1980 to be 11,700 years old, is considered the oldest living thing on Earth.
“I don’t think anyone ever thought a bush would be that old,” said Cornett, curator of natural science at the Palm Springs Desert Museum.
In a species that reproduces itself through cloning, any individual is theoretically as old as the species. Take King’s Holly, a rare Tasmanian plant. In 1996, scientists found fossil remains of the plant near the holly’s only known population.
The fossils were found to be 43,000 years old, suggesting the existing plants had grown in that location for at least that long.
A box huckleberry colony in Pennsylvania, spread over some 10 square miles, is believed to date back as far as 13,000 years.
In the case of King Clone and the bush now being studied, scientists traced one bush, not a population — back in time.
University of California, Riverside botanist Frank Vasek discovered King Clone. Over the millennia, it had grown outward into a large ring.
Vasek, now retired, said he doubted there were any creosotes older than King Clone.
“The way human activity is devastating the area, it is unlikely they would survive that onslaught,” Vasek said.
Tom Van Devender, senior research scientist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz., said the newly found bush could well be older than King Clone. And he doesn’t believe King Clone is as old as scientists claim. He believes it is closer to 7,500 years old or younger. That’s still older than the oldest bristlecone by several thousand years.
Cornett’s bush grows differently than the ringlike King Clone, thanks, he said, to the merciless winds that howl through the northern outskirts of Palm Springs.
There, the wind is strong enough to smooth the granite boulders that pepper the garbage-strewn landscape and drive the blades of hundreds of power-generating windmills in the area. It also gives the creosote bush its streamlined shape.
On this patch of federal land, the bush struggles with the wind to grow outward, but none of the sprouts that grow from roots fanning out under the coarse sand survive — save those lucky enough to come up behind the windbreak formed by the original plant.
“Every time it puts out a sprout to the side, it gets obliterated,” Cornett said.
Over the centuries, the bush has formed a long line of clones. When the lead bush dies, it leaves the second in the chain to take the brunt of the wind.
Cornett and his colleagues first spotted the linear bush while flying over the northern outskirts of Palm Springs. It stuck out like a sore thumb.
The root samples being tested by Cornett came from beneath the soil upwind of the living bush, and presumably belonged to a genetically identical predecessor that died thousands of years ago. The trace remains of roots linking the living and dead portions of the bush support that hypothesis, Cornett said.
“This is a spectacular claim, but Cornett is a well respected scientist and I would say run with it,” said Richard Felger, executive director of the Drylands Institute in Tucson, Ariz.
The creosote bush, Larrea tridentata, is the hallmark perennial of the warm deserts of North and South America. When crushed, or after a rainfall, its small, waxy leaves give off the pungent, petroleumlike smell that gives it its name.
On the Net:
Palm Springs Desert Museum http://www.psmuseum.org/