POPULUS TREMULOIDES

The world’s largest and oldest organism is super stressed out

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

The largest and oldest living organism on Earth is the Pando clone, a quaking aspen colony of over 47,000 trees in Utah that stretches over 106-acres, weighs 13 million pounds, and is 80,000 years old.

Pando is Latin for spread, or extend, and that’s just what Pando does. A single root system connects the trees, which emerged from one seed a millennia ago. An enormous expanse of genetically identical sprouts are linked underground, growing into unfortunately tasty treats for the many mule deer in the region.

The grove has almost as many monikers as tentacles. It’s also called “the trembling giant,” for the quaking aspen’s Latin appellation populus tremuloides. Despite the trees’ trembling leaves, Pando isn’t that fragile, or it wouldn’t have survived so long and spread so far and wide. But it is tired, so foresters are helping the organism relax and rejuvenate.

“If we had a community of 50,000 people and every one of them was over 80 years of age, we wouldn’t have a very sustainable community,” Paul Rogers, an ecologist at Utah State University and the director of the Western Aspen Alliance, told Live Science. “That is exactly what we’re looking at with the Pando clone….The system is not replacing itself; it’s highly out of balance.”

Unlike other forests, a cloned organism like the trembling giant in Utah can’t be replanted. It must be regenerated.

The colony is stressed by changes to the environment which scientists say were initially prompted by humans. Now it’s herbivores that directly threaten Pando. Wolf populations that once preyed on deer in the region have been eliminated, leaving the deer to brazenly enjoy the grove’s young sprouts for decades.

The deer are primarily to blame for Pando’s stress, says Rogers. He’s been working with the US Forest Service on rerouting the creatures and preserving the natural treasure with a simple measure—fencing. According to researchers, it works. “As part of a larger project to restore Pando, we fenced, treated, and monitored a portion of this famous grove with the intent of documenting regeneration responses and using such practices at larger scales,” he explained in a paper in Ecosphere early this year.

His team monitored 27 randomly-created plots, some protected with only fences. Other areas were fenced and treated with burning, shrub removal, and overstory culling (removing foliage high in the trees that blocks sunlight sprouts need to grow). Unfenced areas were also monitored. After three years, the researchers found that fencing, with or without additional treatment, was highly effective in encouraging growth. They say they just need to keep sprouts safe until young Pando clones reach about six feet.

Their findings led to an even bigger experiment. According to the Forest Service, now more than half of Utah’s trembling giant is fenced off—67 acres that allow Pando’s clones keep growing to adulthood, protected from threatening nibblers. The hope is that by helping the youngest sprouts stay safe from herbivores longer, the organism will continue cloning for many more millennia. Rogers calls the grove “magical” and says he has hope it will survive with some help.


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