The largest organism in the world is slowly being devoured by deer

Pando’s shivering poplars: actually a single organism in genetic terms. Credit: Lance Odditt. Friends of Pando/provided by author

In the Wasatch Mountains of the western United States, on the slopes above a spring-fed lake, inhabits a single giant organism that provides an entire ecosystem on which plants and animals have depended for thousands of years. Found in my home state of Utah (USA), “Pando” is an area of ​​nearly 43 hectares of poplar clones (tremuloides populus).

Although it looks like a forest of individual trees with impressive white bark and tiny leaves that flutter in the slightest breeze, Pando (Latin for “I have spread myself”) is actually a collection of 47,000 genetically identical stems that emerge from a network of roots. interconnected. This single genetic individual weighs about 6 million tons. By mass, it is the largest single organism on Earth.

Poplar trees tend to form clonal stands elsewhere, but what makes Pando interesting is their enormous size. Most of the clonal springer stands in North America are much smaller, with those in the western United States averaging just 1.2 hectares.

Pando has been around for thousands of years, potentially as much as 14,000 years, although most stalks only live for about 130 years. Its longevity and isolation mean that an entire ecosystem of 68 species of plants and many animals has evolved and been kept in its shadow. This entire ecosystem depends on the aspen tree staying healthy and erect. But while Pando is protected by the US National Forest Service and is not at risk of being felled, he is at risk of disappearing due to several other factors.

Aerial outline of Pando, with Fish Lake in the foreground. Credit: Lance Oditt/Friends of Pando, provided by the author
Deer are eating the youngest “trees”

Overgrazing of deer and moose is one of the biggest concerns. Wolves and cougars used to control their numbers, but herds are now much larger due to the loss of these predators. Deer and moose also tend to gather in Pando, as the protection the forest receives means they are not at risk of being hunted there.

As older trees die or fall, light hits the forest floor, which encourages the growth of new clonal trunks. But when these animals eat the tops of newly formed trunks, they die. This means that in large portions of Pando there is little new growth. The exception is an area that was fenced off a few decades ago to remove dying trees. This fenced area excluded moose and deer and saw the successful regeneration of new, densely growing clonal stems known as the “bamboo garden”.

Well-disguised deer eating sprouts in Pando. Credit: Lance Oditt/Friends of Pando, provided by the author
Diseases and climate change

The older stems in Pando are also being affected by at least three diseases: soot bark cancer, leaf spot and carpal fungal disease. Although plant diseases have developed and thrived in shivering poplars for millennia, it is not known what the long-term effect on the ecosystem might be, as there is a lack of new growth and an ever-expanding list of other pressures on the clonal giant.

The fastest growing threat is the climate change. Pando emerged after the last ice age passed and has faced a fairly stable climate ever since. It certainly inhabits an alpine region surrounded by desert, which means it is no stranger to high temperatures or drought. But climate change threatens the size and lifespan of the tree, as well as the entire ecosystem it hosts.

While no scientific study has focused specifically on Pando, poplar villages have struggled with pressures related to climate change, such as reduced water supplies and warmer weather earlier in the year, making it harder for trees to grow new. leaves, which led to a decline in coverage. With more competition for dwindling water resources (the nearby Fish Lake is out of reach of the tree’s root system), expectations that temperatures will continue to rise to record summer levels and the threat of more intense wildfires , Pando will certainly find it difficult to adjust to these fast-changing conditions while maintaining his size.

Pando survived disease, hunting and colonization. Credit: Lance Oditt/Friends of Pando, provided by the author
The next 14 thousand years

Still, Pando is resilient and has survived rapid environmental changes, especially when European settlers began to inhabit the area in the 19th century or after the rise of recreational activities in the 20th century. It has dealt with disease, forest fires and grasslands before and continues to be the largest scientifically documented body in the world.

Pando survived disease, hunting and colonization. Credit: Lance Oditt/Friends of Pando, provided by the author

For all the reasons for concern, there is hope that scientists are helping us unlock the secrets of Pando’s resilience, while conservation groups and the US Forest Service are working to protect this tree and its associated ecosystem. And a new group, called Friends of Pando, aims to make the tree accessible to virtually everyone through 360-degree video recordings.

Last summer, when I was visiting my family in Utah, I took the opportunity to visit Pando. I spent two amazing days walking under huge ripe stalks swaying and “shivering” in the gentle breeze, amongst the thick new growth in the “bamboo garden” and even charming meadows that pierce portions of the otherwise closed center. I marveled at the wildflowers and other plants that thrive under the shade-dappled canopy and enjoyed watching pollinating insects, birds, foxes, beavers and deer, all using some part of the ecosystem created by Pando.

It’s these moments that remind us that we have plants, animals and ecosystems worth protecting. In Pando, we have the rare chance to protect the three.

* Richard Elton Walton is a postdoctoral research associate in biology at the University of Newcastle (UK).

** ANDthis article was republished from the site the conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article on here.

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About Abhishek Pratap

Food maven. Unapologetic travel fanatic. MCU's fan. Infuriatingly humble creator. Award-winning pop culture ninja.

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