In Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, there are 106 acres of forest that’s actually a single Quaking Aspen with numerous shoots. At first glance, Pando, as the forest is called, looks like a grove of 47,000 individual Aspen trees. But a botanical researcher discovered in 1968 that Pando is in fact a single tree with clone stems connected by a lateral root system. Each individual tree/stem you see in the grove is actually genetically identical, making them all clones of the original parent tree.
Pando is actually the world’s largest organism by mass, weighing a whopping 13 million pounds. The ‘humongous fungus’ in Oregon’s Blue Mountains is thought to be the largest organism by distance, covering roughly 2,384 acres.
Pando, named after the Latin word meaning ‘I Spread’, could be tens of thousands of years old as a whole, with some estimates going as old as a million years old. This organism has survived through thousands and thousands of years of change since the end of the last Ice Age, in part because it’s constantly reproducing. The average age of the shoots is 130 years old and as one section dies off or succumbs to wildfires or other issues, there’s another section, a different generation, waiting to replace it. And because it’s connected by the roots, as soon as one part dies, resources are allocated to the survival of other stems.
Over the last few decades, researchers have unfortunately discovered that Pando isn’t regenerating in the way that it should and it may be dying. Dr. Paul Rogers, an ecologist at Utah State University, describes Pando’s current state as a large community of elderly people. Usually, as the individual trees naturally age and die, newer generations filled in the gaps. But because of human activity and a lack of predators in the area, there are grazers like mule deer and cattle eating the tops of saplings and making it difficult for Pando to regenerate. In fact, Pando’s growth has significantly slowed over the last four decades.
Dr. Rogers pins the blame for Pando’s slow demise on humans, as our more recent activities are why herbivores like deer and cattle are able to spend so much time eating Pando’s new saplings. By the early 20th century, humans had been aggressively hunting predators like wolves and mountain lions all over the west, including where Pando is located in southern Utah. Without the threat of predation, mule deer have free range in Pando that they didn’t have before.
In cooperation with other organizations, the U.S. Forest Service is actually working to study and potentially save Pando. Over the years, high school students in Utah have even participated in monitoring Pando’s growth as a way to learn more about the organism and surrounding ecosystem. Plus, parts of Pando have been fenced off to allow saplings the chance to grow without being eaten by deer and elk. Other suggestions to save Pando include reintroducing predators like wolves back into the area, moving a nearby campsite farther away, and allowing more hunting licenses to help cull the deer and elk population.
It may seem odd for a blog primarily centered on the Pacific Northwest to write about a tree in southern Utah but Pando’s importance and ultimate survival are important beyond its boundary. What scientists can learn about the conservation of this organism could be applied to other conservation efforts in different parts of the world and with so many flora and fauna species facing crisis after crisis, any sort of knowledge is vital. And if we, as humans, allow for one of the largest and oldest organisms to simply fade away because of our arrogance and actions, what does that say about us?
If you’d like to see Pando yourself, one of the best times to visit is during autumn when the leaves start to turn a bright yellow. As of right now, you still can spend the night camping within Pando at the Doctor Creek Campground (which is open May to mid-October every year) and fall asleep to the fluttering sounds of this Trembling Giant.