Pando is the largest living organism on our planet and it is breaking down

It is ancient, it is massive and it falters. The giant kiosk nicknamed “Pando,” located in south-central Utah, is more than 100 acres of trembling and genetically identical plant life, thought to be the largest living organism on earth (based on dry mass, 13 million lb ).

What looks like a glittering landscape of individual trees is actually a group of genetically identical stems with a huge shared root system.

Now, after a life that could have lasted millennia, the “shaking giant” is starting to disintegrate, according to new research.

Paul Rogers, an adjunct professor of ecology at Quinney College of Natural Resources and director of the Western Aspen Alliance, completed Pando’s first comprehensive assessment five years ago. He showed that the grazing deer (and, to a lesser extent, livestock) were damaging the stand, limiting the growth of new aspen suckers and setting an effective expiration date on the colossal plant. As the trees aged, the new aspen shoots did not survive voracious browsers to replace them. Pando was dying slowly.

In response to the threat, the managers erected a fence around a section of the grandstand to keep grazing animals out, creating something of an experiment. Rogers recently returned to evaluate the strategy and to do a good check on Pando’s general health. He reported his findings in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.

Infographic illustrating the divergent ecologies of the largest living organism in the world, an aspen called Pando. CREDIT Infographic by Lael Gilbert

According to the research, Pando appears to be taking three disparate ecological paths based on how the segments are managed. About 16 percent of the stand is properly fenced to keep grazing animals out; new aspen suckers that survive those first tender years to settle into new trees. But in more than a third of the grandstand, the fence had fallen into disrepair and was only recently reinforced. Past navigation still has negative impacts in this section; old and dying trees are even more numerous than young ones.

And the areas that remain unfenced (about 50 percent of the population) continue to have concentrated levels of deer and cattle that consume most of the young shoots. These hard-hit areas are now shifting ecologically in distinct ways, Rogers said. Ripe aspen stems die off without being replaced, opening up excessive history and allowing more sunlight to constantly reach the forest floor, which alters the composition of the plant. These unfenced areas are experiencing the fastest decline of poplars, while the other fenced areas are following their own unique paths, in effect, breaking up this unique, historically uniform forest.

The solution to Pando’s survival, Rogers said, may not just be more fencing. While unfenced areas are rapidly disappearing, fencing alone is encouraging the regeneration of a single age in a forest that has sustained itself over the centuries by varying growth. While this may not sound critical, growth patterns of aspen and undergrowth are already occurring in contrast to the past, Rogers said.

In Utah and throughout the West, Pando is iconic and something of a canary in the coal mine. As a key species, aspen forests support high levels of biodiversity, from tits to blueberry. As aspen ecosystems flourish or decline, a host of dependent species follow suit. Long-term failure to recruit aspen systems can have cascading effects on hundreds of dependent species.

Additionally, there are aesthetic and philosophical issues with a fencing strategy, Rogers said.

“I think if we try to save the organism with just fences, we will end up trying to create something like a zoo in the wild,” Rogers said. “Although the fencing strategy is well-intentioned, we will eventually have to address the underlying problems of too many deer and cattle grazing in this landscape.”

Pando is a paradox. It is known to be the largest organism on earth, but is relatively small in the overall picture of conservation challenges around the world, or even just in Utah, he said. But as a symbol, it speaks of the fate of aspen diversity and healthy human interactions with the earth in general. Lessons learned during Pando’s protection also offer a perspective on the distressed poplar forests that stretch across the earth’s northern hemisphere.

Pando’s Pulse: Vital Signs Signal Need to Correct Course in World Famous Poplar Forest, Conservation Science and Practice

Astrobiology

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