If you presume that the blue whale is the largest living organism on the planet, you are wrong. There are many organisms far bigger. And one of them, the Pando aspen grove, is unfortunately dying.
The Pando, or quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) grove, may look like a forest to the casual observer. But in reality, it is a single organism, with all trees sharing the same DNA and connected to each other through a vast root system. Pando, located in central Utah, is spread over 106 acres on a rolling hillside, which is equivalent to 140 football fields. It is also estimated to weigh some 6 million kilograms. While the Pando has lived on for centuries without facing any significant threats, the grove is currently under risk of extinction.
“The grove of 47,000 trees has remained for thousands of years partially because the single organism has been able to supply trees at every stage of an aspen’s life, helping it to be resistant to external threats. However, grazing animals have threatened Pando’s ability to produce young offspring to replace dying trees. Another threat is human development in the area, with the combination of campgrounds, power lines, hiking trails, and cabins,” according to Forbes.
Fortunately, Paul Rogers from the Utah State University believes he may have found a way to keep the organism safe — fencing. In the past few years, Rogers and his team fenced around 16 acres of Pando. Over time, they discovered that while the growth of trees outside the fence was limited because of grazing deer, hundreds of saplings flourished inside the fence. This has given hope to environmental groups that Pando can be saved from extinction.
“I don’t know how much longer it will live for… But we gave it more life. And we didn’t just take it off life support. Maybe we gave it a heart transplant,” Matthew LaPlante, author of an upcoming book that covers Pando, said to U.S. News & World Report. Researchers are now fencing about 40 acres of Pando grove in an attempt to see whether the results can be replicated.
The largest organism by size
While Pando is the largest organism in the world by weight, it is not the biggest when it comes to size. That claim goes to a specific honey fungus spread across the Blue Mountains in Oregon. Though Pando’s size of 106 acres is definitely impressive, it is dwarfed by the Blue Mountain honey fungus (Armillaria ostoyae) that is spread over 2,400 acres, equivalent to 3,168 football fields.
“Honey fungus, or honey mushroom, is actually the common name given to several different species of fungi in the genus Armillaria. These parasitic fungi colonize and kill a variety of trees and woody plants, a characteristic that has earned them the nickname “Gardeners Nightmare,” although some varieties are more benign than others,” according to IFL Science.
While some might say that Pando and the honey fungus are not exactly an “organism” similar to the blue whale, they actually do meet the scientific description of a living organism. According to biological definitions, anything that is made up of identical cells that communicate and coordinate with each other for a common purpose is said to be an organism. Both Pando and the honey fungus comfortably meet that description.