Saturday, August 11, 2012

Pando - A Forest of one Tree.

English: mountainside covered in clonal coloni...
English: mountainside covered in clonal colonies of quaking aspen, Matanuska Valley, Alaska. Note the people and vehicles at lower left for scale. Category:Images of Alaska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There is the misconception that the largest creature on Earth is the Blue Whale. Measuring in at 180,000kg it is certainly a sizeable beast but it is far from the largest.  For the larger creatures we must delve into the world of super-organisms. Many individuals connected to form a single whole. The largest of these, that has so far been discovered, is a forest made only of one tree. Pando.

Pando, Latin for 'I spread' is a tree, or it is not. That depends on your definition of tree. Pando (a.k.a. the Trembling Giant) is a clonal colony of a single male, Quaking Aspen(Populus Tremuloides). It is located within Utah in the United States of America.

So how does it work? When a Quaking Aspen wants to reproduce, it  flowers and produces a clone of itself. Cloning just means extending its network of roots and forcing them up through the ground, thus starting a new tree. This new tree has the same genetic makeup and even has genetic markers to say that it actually belongs to the first tree. To all intents and purposes it is the first tree, but in a separate place.

The new tree grows with the old one and together they establish a large root network which produces more and more Quaking Aspen, essentially causing the single tree to expand into a clonal colony with a vast root network.

Just how vast is it?

Normally clonal colonies are 0.1 hectares in size, Pando is 43 hectares in size, and weighs 6,000,000 kilograms.

The trees on the surface die, the root network is the real Trembling Giant, and it does not die. It constantly sends up new shoots, renews dieing trees and stops supplying nutrients to those which are dead. The reason it cannot die is because the heart of Pando lies too far beneath the ground to be reached by the frequent forest fires. These forest fires are in fact a boon for Pando as it kills off the pesky invading conifers and frees up space for many more extensions of Pando to be sent up.

Due to this invulnerability and protection from competition the heart of Pando is considered the oldest known organism in existence. Experts pin it down to being approximately 80,00 years old. This impressive longevity makes it the oldest known living organism on our fair planet.

80,000 years ago the Trembling Giant was but a lone tree living in the perfect environment for it to spread, grow, flower and produce clones. However the environment has changed so much over time that it is much less hospitable towards Quaking Aspens. Experts believe that the changes in the environment have been so pronounced that  Pando has not successfully flowered in the last 10,000 years, meaning its survival is dependent upon producing more clones and hoping for forest fires to wipe out the pesky conifers.

This is impressive but there are many more super-organisms out there, many under-analysed or even unknown. So while this is good, it is very possible that there are other things even more impressive than this.