“The Oldest Living Things in the World”
By Rachel Sussman
University Of Chicago Press, 304pp | Buy on Amazon

When Rachel Sussman takes pictures of the oldest living things in the world, something spectacular happens; not only does she capture the resilience of adaptability of life, but she also captures its vulnerability – and indirectly, our vulnerability. It’s humbling to see a tree that has been around for more than 2,000 years, but it’s even more so to see a bacteria that’s been alive since the emergence of Homo sapiens. It just gives you a sense of how passing life can be.

“The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future”, she writes in the introduction.

But what made me like this book even more was that it wasn’t just documenting the oldest species in the world – this isn’t strictly a science project, it’s also art; and for every species that was photographed and documented (and even for some which weren’t), there’s a good story. As a matter of fact, the entire book is written so personally it’s almost like a travel diary. Everything is presented in a candid way, from when the author hard to kill a trout to eat it to when she had a coral living inside her for several months. The journey took her all over the world, from Greenland to Australia in the quest to unearth the oldest living things, and while the project is still a work in progress, it’s clear that it is already successful.

The book should be a delightful read for anyone. It’s easy to understand, you learn a lot of things, and it’s fun. It’s a worthy addition to any bookshelf. So, instead of saying more about the book, I’m actually gonna actually present some of the oldest living things in the world, to spark your interest. These are just a few of the species in the book, with a short description:

Welwitschia Mirabilis (2,000 years old)

This spectacular plant only has two leaves. The green mass you see here is those two leaves reaching an enormous size. They eventually grow to a length of 2–4 m and usually become split, frayed and shredded into several well-separated strap-shaped sections.


Armillaria Mushroom (2,400 years old)

Armillaria is a parasitic mushroom – the only species on the list purposely destroyed by humans, as it can cause massive damage to forests. Armillarias are long lived and form some of the largest living organisms in the world. The largest single organism (of the species Armillaria solidipes) covers more than 3.4 square miles (8.8 square km)


Brain Coral (2,000 years old)

Since corals are actually animals, the brain coral is actually the oldest animal on the list (though other corals are even older, living up to 5,000 years). Brain corals extend their tentacles to catch food at night. During the day, they use their tentacles for protection by wrapping them over the grooves on their surface. The surface is hard and offers good protection against fish or hurricanes.


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La Llareta (3,000 years old)

Llareta is a flowering plant in the family Apiaceae native to South America. It grows in the Puna grasslands of the Andes in Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and western Argentina at very high altitudes, between 3,200 and 4,500 metres (10,500 and 14,800 ft).


Olive Tree (3,000 years old)

Bristlecone Pine (up to 5,000 years old)

Spruce Gran Picea (9,550 years old)

The Norway spruce, Picea abies, is a species of spruce native to Central and Eastern Europe. It grows up to 55 m (180 ft) tall. The Norway spruce is one of the most widely planted spruces, both in and outside of its native range, and one of the most economically important coniferous species in Europe.


Antarctic Beech (12,000 years old)

The Antarctic Beech (currently found mostly in Australia has been around since the ancient continent Gondwana, over 500 million years ago.


Lomatia Tasmanica (43,600 years old)

Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King’s lomatia, is a Tasmanian shrub from the family Proteaceae. Unfortunately, only one colony of King’s Lomatia is known to be alive in the wild. It is also sometimes called “King’s Holly”, though it is not a holly. Although all the plants are technically separate in that each has its own root system, they are collectively considered to be one of the oldest living plant clones. Each plant’s life span is approximately 300 years, but the plant has been cloning itself for many more years.


Pando, Clonal Colony of Quaking Aspen (80,000 years old)

Also known as The Trembling Giant, Pando is a clonal colony of a single male quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) determined to be a single living organism by identical genetic markers and assumed to have one massive underground root system. The plant is estimated to weigh collectively 6,000,000 kg (6,600 short tons), making it the heaviest known organism.


Siberian Actinobacteria (400,000 – 600,000 years old)

Quite possibly the oldest living organisms in the world are actinobacteria.