What Does the Future Hold for the World’s Largest Organism?
Have you ever wondered what the world’s largest organism is? You probably wouldn’t immediately think about a forest, but as it turns out, Utah is home to the world’s largest organism, a clonal colony of approximately 47,000 quaking aspen trees. These trees are genetically identical and stem from a single root system. This single organism is known as Pando (Latin for "I spread"). It covers approximately 107 acres of Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, with a root system that is several thousand years old, making it one of the oldest known living organisms. Pando has gained fame as a symbol of interconnectedness and sustainability, but this awe-inspiring organism could be on the brink of collapse.
A combination of factors contribute to the uncertainty of Pando’s long-term survival, including drought, climate change, grazing, and human development. Paul Rogers, an ecology professor at Utah State University and director of the Western Aspen Alliance, states that Pando is dying from within because animals (especially mule deer and cattle) are eating it faster than it can regenerate. Fencing has been erected to protect Pando, but it does little good against animals that can simply jump over.
Aerial photographs of Pando taken over the past 72 years have shown that new trees aren’t growing to replace ones that have died. If something doesn’t change, Rogers fears that Pando may “deteriorate beyond recovery” in less than a decade. The Forest Service has tried to stimulate sprout growth by burning and cutting parts of the grove, but with little effect. Rogers believes that the fate of Pando ultimately relies on the will of people to take action toward sustaining this incredible, mighty wonder.
The incredible (disappearing?) Pando:
- Pando was discovered in 1976 by Jerry Kemperman and Burton Barnes.
- Collectively, Pando is estimated to weigh around 6,614 tons (6,000 tonnes), making it the heaviest known organism in existence.
- In 2006, a stamp was released by the US Postal Service to recognize Pando, naming it one of the forty "Wonders of America."
- Fencing methods around Pando have improved over the years but come at a high cost. The perimeter of Pando spans about 12,000 feet (3,658 m), which would cost around $60,000 to fence.
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