World's Largest Organism Is Slowly Being Eaten, Scientist Says

On the hills above a spring-fed lake in the Wasatch Mountains of the western US, there lives a single enormous organism that sustains an entire ecology on which plants and animals have depended for thousands of years.

"Pando" is a 106-acre grove of quaking aspen clones that can be found in my native state of Utah.

Pando (Latin for "I spread") is actually 47,000 genetically identical stems that emerge from an interconnected root network. Despite looking like a woodland of individual trees with striking white bark and small leaves that flutter in the slightest breeze, Pando is actually a genetically diverse group of fungi.

The weight of this one hereditary person is roughly 6,000 metric tons. It is the biggest organism on Planet in terms of bulk.

Although aspen trees often grow in clonal groups elsewhere, Pando is unique because of its huge girth. In North America, clonal aspen groups tend to be much smaller, with western US stands totaling only 3 acres.

Despite the fact that the majority of roots only live for about 130 years, pando has existed for thousands of years—possibly up to 14,000 years. Due to its age and isolation, an entire ecology with 68 plant species and numerous animals has developed and thrived in its shadow.

The aspen's continued good health and stability are essential to this complete ecology. But despite being safeguarded by the US National Forest Service and not in danger of being felled, Pando is still in danger of going extinct because of a number of other reasons.

The newest "woods" are being eaten by deer.

One of the greatest concerns is overgrazing by moose and deer. Herds were once held in control by wolves and cougars, but these predators are no longer present, and herds have grown significantly.

Due to the security the woodland gets, deer and elk also frequently gather in Pando because they are not at risk of being killed there.

When elder trees expire or topple over, light reaches the forest floor and promotes the growth of new clonal stems. However, when these animals consume the newly formed stems' tips, they perish. This indicates that there is not much fresh development in most of Pando.

The exception is a region that was enclosed a few decades back so that dead plants could be removed. The "bamboo garden" is a fenced-off area where new clone branches have successfully grown and been successfully regenerated despite the absence of elk and deer.

Diseases and climate change

At least three diseases, including leaf spot, conk fungus disease, and sooty bark canker, are also affecting older branches in Pando.

Despite the fact that plant diseases have evolved and flourished in aspen stands for millennia, it is unclear what the long-term impact on the ecosystem may be given the absence of new growth and the numerous other stresses on the clonal giant.

Climate change is the danger that is escalating the quickest. Pando emerged following the end of the last ice age and has contended with a generally stable environment ever since.

It is true that it lives in a high area encircled by desert, so it is accustomed to hot weather and drought. However, the tree's size and lifespan as well as the entire ecology it supports are under danger from climate change.

Although Pando has not been the subject of any particular scientific research, aspen forests have been under pressure from climate change-related factors such as decreased water availability and higher temperatures early in the year, which have caused decreases in coverage.

Pando will undoubtedly find it difficult to adapt to these rapidly changing conditions while maintaining its size because of increased competition for ever-dwindling water resources, the threat of more intense wildfires, and the fact that the nearby Fish Lake is just out of the tree's root system's reach.

following 14,000 years

But Pando is tough and has already weathered quick environmental changes, particularly after the arrival of European residents in the region in the 19th century or after the rise of leisure activities in the 20th century. It is still the biggest scientifically verified organism in the world and has survived illness, wildfire, and grazing before.

Despite all the reasons for worry, there is optimism because researchers are helping us discover the mechanisms underlying Pando's fortitude, and conservation organizations and the US Forest Service are working to safeguard this tree and the ecosystem that it is a part of. Additionally, a brand-new organization called the Friends of Pando seeks to make the tree widely available by creating 360-degree video videos.

I seized the opportunity to explore Pando one summer while I was in Utah visiting my relatives. The "bamboo gardendense "'s new growth, towering mature stems that were swaying and "quaking" in the mild wind, and even the delightful fields that pierced some of the otherwise confined center's walls all made for two incredible days of strolling for me.

I was astounded to see blooms and other plants flourishing beneath the dappled shadow cover, and I enjoyed finding pollinating insects, birds, fox, beaver, and deer, all of which were utilizing a different aspect of the environment that Pando had built.

These instances serve as a reminder that our ecosystems, flora, and creatures are valuable and deserve to be protected. We have the exceptional opportunity to defend all three in Pando.

Richard Elton Walton, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Biology, Newcastle University.