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What is the Largest Organism?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
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Naming the world's largest organism is complicated by what you define as an "organism". Certain invertebrates, such as coral and fungus, aggregate into collectives called superorganisms. Hence, the world's largest superorganism, the Great Barrier Reef, sometimes gets the title.

There is also a fungus called Armillaria ostoyae, or the honey mushroom, that forms fungal mats as long as 8.9 kmĀ² (2200 square acres or 3.5 square miles), although there is disagreement as to whether the entire mat qualifies as a single organism. The largest example of this fungus can be found in a national forest in Oregon. It is estimated to be 2,400 years old.

If you ask which obviously individual largest organism receives the title, it falls to the Giant Sequoia called General Sherman, which can be found in California. This is generally accepted at the world's largest organism. It has a volume of 1,489 cubic meters, or 52,583 cubic feet. Despite this, pages referencing the Oregonian honey mushroom rank highest for Google searches for "largest organism".

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Mushrooms and trees aside, the world's largest animal ever known to have lived is the blue whale, whose heart is the size of a Volkswagen bug. These underwater giants weigh up to 180 tons and can be as long as 30 meters (100 feet). At birth, they are the size of a fully grown hippopotamus. Because so many blue whales were killed in the early 20th century in the Antarctic by sailors unversed in scientific measurement techniques, we are not entirely certain how large blue whales can really grow, but they are definitely massive.

The blue whale is only rivaled in size by Argentinosaurus, the largest and heaviest land animal to ever have lived, with a height of more than 40 meters (125 feet) and a weight around 90 tons. Argentinosaurus was an herbivorous sauropod, the largest of its kind that we know of. We have only found a few bones - a single vertebrate was 1.3 m (4.3 ft) long. While not the world's largest organism in general, its appearance in the flesh could probably impress humans even more than any of the aforementioned organisms. Argentinosaurus lived 112.2 to 93.5 million years ago.

Repeatedly, throughout the summer of 1997, an incredibly loud, low-frequency sound was detected by the Equatorial Pacific Ocean autonomous hydrophone array. The sound is very perplexing because it has the acoustic signature of an immense organism with a gas-filled sac. This has since become known as the Bloop. It has been hypothesized this is a new, larger form of whale, but it would need to surface every once in a while, which would make it visible occasionally. So the Bloop remains a mystery, but it could end up being the call of the world's true largest organism, or at least its largest animal.

One day we may discover an even larger organism. Life on other planets or genetically engineered life probably has a size limit substantially larger than anything we have ever seen or imagined.

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Fa5t3r
Post 3

@pleonasm - Well, I guess if you could call that birch tree a single organism you might be able to call the coral reefs a single organism as well. Although I didn't think that coral polyps were actually joined together, I thought they simply lived in the same constructed habitat. But I guess if you want to call that habitat a skeleton of sorts, then they are part of it together.

pleonasm
Post 2

@pastanaga - There was probably an upper limit to how big things would get on the land, since they would have to carry their own weight. There might have been larger prehistoric animals in the ocean though.

I doubt that an animal would ever be able to hold the title to the largest organism though, since there are so many limitations to their growth that plants and fungus don't have.

I actually had never heard of that fungus before though. That's pretty cool. I always thought the biggest organism was that birch forest that all seems to have grown from a single individual plant sending out shoots underground.

pastanaga
Post 1

It's possible that we simply haven't found the largest organism ever in the fossil record. We can't really say that we've found the largest dinosaur that ever existed when we only ever find the barest percentage of what must have one day existed. If an animal is extremely large it probably didn't have lots of individuals around, since there wouldn't have been an unlimited amount of food and space for them all, so I'd say that the larger the animal, the less likely that we would be able to find a fossil of it.

And that's not even getting into things like fungus and plants which are even more difficult to study in the fossil record.

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