The largest organism on Earth is dying

Eloise Marshall
October 21, 2018

Thankfully, aspens are known for being a hardy organism, as is evident in the the fact that Pando has lived and thrived for thousands of years.

"Pando has probably been around for Thousands of years, exactly, we are not able to determine the age - but now he is collapsing before our eyes", said scientist Paul Rogers of Utah State University.

Quick, what's the most massive living organism on the planet? It was discovered years ago in the Malheur National Forest in OR, an Armillaria fungus, which covers about 900 hectares. It's a tree - or rather, a system of over 40,000 clonal trees, all connected by their roots. According to research publish in PLOS One, the forest is experiencing accelerated die-off and a diminished ability to regenerate root systems.

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The forest has been failing to self-reproduce for the last 30 to 40 years, researchers say, due primarily to grazing from deer and cattle, which have been allowed to overrun the area. "The Pando clone presents a unique opportunity for understanding browse mechanisms in a forest where tree genotype, closely aligned with growth and chemical defense, is uniform". In the next set of plots, they fenced trees in to prevent animals from grazing on the shoots. At the time of the analysis, the researchers couldn't find any sample-size trees that didn't have their tops eaten. "This altered pattern roughly coincides with our 72-year photo sequence, when increases in road traffic, recreational home development, and campground use have flourished". "Because of human presence, deer are more safe, which causes a localised overabundance of the animals". For more than 80,000 years, long before any Homo sapiens laid foot on Utah, the tree has perpetuated its genetic material - but now, it is in danger. And they looked at the amount of scat: "We count shit to see what animals are there and what their relative visitation rates are", Rogers said. Maybe Pando just outcompeted other trees.Pando isn't alone: there are other groves of single-clone aspens in North America that dominate their landscape, though none as massive.

And all Pando needs to survive is freedom from the grazers so it can simply regrow! The Pando is not like other trees, Roger explained. While the older trees reach the end of their life cycle, the succession of young shoots takes over. That's its survival mechanism. He thinks the mule deer (not the cattle) are jumping it.

While this study tells an important story, there's more work to be done. Scientists also need to determine whether climate change further damages Pando.

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