What Is Pando, The Trembling Giant?
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Today I want to tell you about a natural phenomenon of which you may not have heard before. Most of us tend to think of the blue whale a the largest organism on Earth. The blue whale certainly is the largest animal known to have ever existed on Earth but it is certainly not the largest organism.
That designation is held by Pando, the largest organism by mass on this planet. There are honey mushrooms in Michigan and Oregon in the US, known as “humungous fungus” that cover the largest area. But what’s special about Pando is not just that it is huge but that it is a clonal colony of one individual male quaking aspen, nicknamed the trembling giant. Although it comprises of 47,000 quaking aspen trees, it is one single organism, based on its identical genetic markers, all of which stem from a single massive underground root system. All 47,000 trees are clones! How cool is that!
Located in Fishlake National Forest in Utah United States, Pando occupies 43 hectares and is estimated to weigh 6,000,000 kilograms, making it the heaviest known organism on the planet. Because its root system is approximately 80,000 years old, it is also among the oldest living organisms of which we know. The estimation of its age is based on a number of complex factors such as its environment, the changes in the environment and geology in the last 10,000 years, climate history and its rate of growth, so it is not exact.
Quaking aspens usually reproduce asexually from their root system, with each stem belonging to that single root system. It is quite rare for quaking aspens to be made of individuals. They are generally clonal colonies of genetically identical stems. Pando’s 47,000 stems die individually and a new one grows from the same root. The average age of each stem is about 130 years, according to tree-ring estimations.
The word Pando means, “I grow” in Latin and although it has been growing for thousands of years, it is now under threat. A study published in 2018, showed that Pando is not regenerating the way it should. In some areas of the grove, there were no young or even middle-aged trees. The culprits seem to be deer and cattle that have been eating away on young saplings. Mule deer have proliferated in the area after humans hunted out their predators, such as wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears. Furthermore, ranchers are allowed to graze their cattle in the area for two weeks every year.
Over 70 years of aerial photographs show that in the 1930s, the tops of the trees were touching but now there are many gaps. Drought is also having its impact. The mature trees in the grove are reaching the end of their lifetime of 100 -130 years and Pando needs time to allow new growth to mature. This can only be achieved if grazers are kept away from it. What it needs is a mega conservation project to enable it to survive.
Think about it, an organism around for thousands of years, a clone that existed before we even thought of cloning and we have brought it to the point of extinction. I am definitely putting Pando on my bucket list to go see it before it disappears from Earth.