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Pando, the world’s largest organism is slowly being eaten by deer

What looks like 47,000 separate trees spread out over 106 acres in Utah are actually all offshoots from a single, massive Aspen tree root. It’s known as Pando and it is believed to be the largest living organism on Earth. Source - Screen grab from PBS News Hour video.
What looks like 47,000 separate trees spread out over 106 acres in Utah are actually all offshoots from a single, massive Aspen tree root. It’s known as Pando and it is believed to be the largest living organism on Earth. Source - Screen grab from PBS News Hour video.

It looks for all the world like a giant grove of trees above a spring-fed lake – with striking white bark and small leaves that flutter in the slightest breeze. But your eyes are deceiving you.

The 43.6 hectares (108 acres) stand of aspens in Utah known as Pando (Latin for “I spread”), is actually a single organism; a clonal colony of an individual male quaking aspen.

Pando actually has 47,000 genetically identical stems that arise from an interconnected root network. This single genetic individual weighs around 6,000 tons. By mass, it is the largest single organism on Earth.

The plant is located in the Fremont River Ranger District of the Fishlake National Forest at the western edge of the Colorado Plateau in south-central Utah, about a mile southwest of Fish Lake.

While the size of this living organism is impressive and awe-inspiring all by itself, the root system is estimated to be several thousand years old with habitat modeling suggesting a maximum age of 14,000 years.

Fall photo of world’s oldest organism, a grove of Populus tremuloides (Quaking Aspen) sharing one root system. Source – USDA/J Zapell, Public Domain

Pando is in danger of disappearing 

In an essay in the Conversation, Richard Elton Walton of Newcastle University writes that all is not well at the Pando site for a number of reasons.

Pando’s long-term survival is uncertain due to drought, human development, grazing, and fire suppression. In collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, the Western Aspen Alliance is studying the tree in an effort to save it.

One major problem is the Pando’s lack of adequate protection from grazing animals – primarily deer and elk – that prevents young shoots from developing enough to replace existing older stems as they die off.

Wolves and cougars once kept their numbers in check, but since the 1980s, herds are now much larger because of the loss of these predators. And, because Pando is a protected area, deer and elk tend to congregate because hunting is not allowed.

A detailed image of the Pando tree shows the characteristic eyes of the tree and leaves changing in later summer. Source – Lance Oditt, Friends of Pando, CC SA 4.0.

Diseases and Climate Change

Besides the constant grazing having an adverse effect, there are three diseases – sooty bark canker, leaf spot, and conk fungal disease to worry over.

While plant diseases have developed and thrived in aspen stands for millennia, it is unknown what the long-term effect on the ecosystem may be, given that there is a lack of new growth and an ever-growing list of other pressures on the organism.

Climate change is now beginning to impact the giant plant. Since arising after the last Ice Age, Pando has thrived in a relatively stable climate. But climate change threatens the size and lifespan of the tree, as well as the whole ecosystem it hosts.

For example, there are reduced water supplies, and warmer weather starting earlier in the year. This makes it harder for trees to form new leaves, leading to a decline in coverage.

And as temperatures continue to rise, and water resources continue to dwindle, Pando will certainly struggle to adjust to these fast-changing conditions while maintaining its size.

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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