Even with advanced medical science, the human lifespan just isn't that long. The longest a person has ever lived has been 122 years, 164 days (depending on who you ask). But there's a shrub in Tasmania that's 43,600 years old. There's a patch of seagrass in Spain that's more than 100,000 years old.
Photographer Rachel Sussman has documented 30 of these oldest living things in the world. Beautiful and romantic, her photos document both the adaptation and fragility inherent to surviving for tens of thousands of years.
"Something that I feel like connects a lot of my subjects is that they tend to live in very inhospitable climates, living in extremes of temperature and elevation. We have things that are underwater. We have organisms that live with very low nutrient availability, things in deserts," said Sussman, speaking to Anne Strainchamps for "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" in this 2014 interview. "The connecting factors have to do with living in difficult circumstances and yet being uniquely adapted to thrive in them."
These transcript highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Antarctic Moss (5,500 years old; Elephant Island, Antarctica)
Rachel Sussman: I had heard about the moss sort of just through a rumor, really. And, you know, I certainly will never forget the moment when I was standing on the bridge of the ship with binoculars, looking out at this point on Elephant Island and actually saw it.
It was incredible just as it was humbling. What does it look like? Everything in Antarctica does look white. But as you get closer, you realize that it's far more nuanced. You could see the green of the moss against some of the rocky outcroppings and those sort of geologic structures as well as the snow and glaciers behind it.
Underground Forest (13,000 years old, Pretoria, South Africa)
RS: The underground forest was a phenomena that I learned about from a botanist in South Africa at the Pretoria Botanical Garden. I'd gone to South Africa looking for baobab trees. And he said, "Oh, have you heard of this phenomena of different plants that actually migrated underground as an evolutionary tactic to protect themselves from frequent fires that occur in the region?"
Collectively, they're known as the underground forests and they're growing closely, which means they're self-propagating. And the one that I photographed was thought to be around 13,000 years old, but unfortunately, it is no longer with us. They changed the traffic pattern outside of the gates of the botanical garden and they just bulldozed right over the poor thing.
This isn't the only one of my subjects that we've lost in the past five years alone. And considering that I only photographed 30 organisms, losing two is not a very good statistic.
Pando, Clonal Colony of Quaking Aspen (80,000 years old, Fish Lake, Utah)
RS: The oldest living thing in the United States is known as Pando. It's a clonal colony of quaking aspen trees that lives in Utah and it happens to be 80,000 years old.
Can you imagine a forest that is technically a single tree? And what I mean by that is it is one giant, interconnected root system and each trunk is actually a stem coming out from that system. So what you have is one giant, genetically identical individual and a single stem might not live more than 200 or 300 years, but the entire organism has been alive for around 80,000.
Soil Sample Containing Siberian Actinobacteria (400,000 – 600,000 years old)
RS: The Siberian Actinobacteria was discovered by a team of planetary biologists who were looking for clues to life on other planets. And they took some core samples into the permafrost in Siberia and ended up finding what is now thought to be the oldest living thing on the planet. So it's really a fantastic discovery, but also goes to show how little we know about life on Earth that there's so much more to discover.
To see even more of Rachel Sussman's photos of the oldest living things in the world, check out the full collection on her website.