18 Nov 2014

The world's oldest living things

From Nine To Noon, 11:25 am on 18 November 2014
Rachel Sussman's Oldest Living Things project includes 5500-year-old moss on Antarctica's Elephant Island.

Rachel Sussman's Oldest Living Things project includes 5500-year-old moss on Antarctica's Elephant Island. Photo: Rachel Sussman

Rachel Sussman's mission to document the oldest living organisms on the planet took her from Antarctica to Greenland and many points in between, including the Mojave Desert and the Australian Outback.

She has tracked down Greenlandic lichens that grow only a centimetre a century, 500,000-year-old actinobacteria gathered from the Siberian permafrost and a South African baobab tree so old it required an armed escort to visit.

The 2000-year-old Welwitschia mirabilis, found in the Namib-Naukluft desert, produces only two leaves in its lifetime.

The 2000-year-old Welwitschia mirabilis, found in the Namib-Naukluft desert, produces only two leaves in its lifetime. Photo: Rachel Sussman

She said before she started out she had no idea just how old some living organisms were.

We are all comfortable with the old trees, but I had to learn what clonal organisms were. They are self-propagating, creating copies of themselves, sending up new shoots and roots and branches that are genetically the same organism, meaning they can be tens of thousands of years old."

She said the project took 10 years because of the enormous amount of research involved as there was no single branch of science dealing with longevity of species.

She also had to overcome her fear of open water and learn to scuba dive in order to capture undersea images, such as 2000-year-old brain coral off the east coast of Tobago.

See a gallery of images of Rachel Sussman's work and find more details on her website.

She spoke to Lynn Freeman on Nine to Noon about her decade-long project.