Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

March 31, 1999

Tiny, ancient trees -- undisturbed by humans -- found growing out of cliffs

Building on an earlier Canadian discovery, a group of researchers, including three from the University of Guelph, have discovered tiny, deformed trees -- some more than 1,000 years old -- growing out of the sides of steep cliffs in the United States and Europe.

An article on their research findings appears in the April 1 edition of Nature magazine.

The discovery suggests that forests of ancient, slow-growing trees have gone undetected and undisturbed by agricultural and industrial activity for centuries. "Cliffs are seen as being bare wastelands, places without life," says Prof. Doug Larson, Department of Botany. "But our research suggests the exact opposite of this is true. Cliffs are the places that have escaped human disturbance. These are among the least disturbed forests on Earth."

Larson is part of the University's Cliff Ecology Research Group, which also includes research associates Uta Matthes and John Gerrath. The University researchers initially found trees growing on the vertical cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment while studying hiker disturbance on cliffs in Southern Ontario more than a decade ago. They expanded their research to include trees on cliffs in the eastern United States and Germany, France, England, and Wales, with help from researchers in the U.S. and Europe.

They studied 224 trees on 21 cliffs in the U.S. and 25 cliffs in Europe. The cliffs were at least 500 metres long and between 20 and 1,500 metres high, and were located in heavily developed areas.

Many of the trees examined were tiny, looking more like twigs than trees, some weighing as little as 11 grams. They ranged in age from 160 to 1,100 years old, meaning some of the trees grow less than 1 millimetre per year. One sample was only about eight centimetres in diameter, but is estimated to be more than 1,100 years old. "They are among the slowest-growing trees on earth," Larson says.

Contact: Prof. Doug Larson, Department of Botany (519) 824-4120 Ext. 2679/6008

For media questions, contact Lori Hunt in Communications and Public Affairs, (519) 824-4120 Ext. 3338.

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