The colony is the oldest living organism in the world.
In the fall time in the Fishlake National Forest or Utah, a quaking giant comes to life in a splash of brilliant yellow. That’s when all 47,000 specimens of the Pando clonal colony start to go dormant for the winter ahead. The 107 acres of forest create a singular color pattern that stands out against the surrounding hillside.
This same beautiful display happens once year as it has for approximately 80,000 years. This ancient grove isn’t just a bunch of trees that have withstood the test of time, but it’s the same basic organism. Scientists, thanks to genetic testing, believe that each tree in Pando is the same organism reproduced over and over again with slight genetic variations.
These quaking aspen trees do reproduce in the traditional way with seeds and pollination from insects. When conditions are tough, the Pando colony takes a different tactic. Instead of spreading seeds, the Pando clonal grove shoots up new trees as part of an extensive root system. This means every tree in the colony shares the same root system. The result is one of the largest and oldest living organisms on Earth.
Scientists estimate the colony weighs 6,615 tons (13 million pounds), or approximately 55 times heavier than the largest animal on Earth, the blue whale. In terms of surface area, the clonal grove comes in second place to fungal mats in Oregon that spread out over 1,000 acres (about 10 times bigger than Pando).
Scientists aren’t sure how this clonal colony, called the Trembling Giant, grew to be so old and so large. Specimens can grow up to 82 feet high and live to be 130 years old. The shoots that come up from the ground from the roots generally happen in older parts of the forest, which passes on good traits from the parent material that helps the tree live long and prosper.
The difficulty with older trees creating shoots is that these newer trees don’t live long enough to grow into full-fledged adult trees. Scientists believe overgrazing from deer and elk is responsible for gobbling up the tender, young trees. Conservation work on the area started in 2010, but a more concerted effort happened in 2016 into 2017.
Teams monitor 27 distinct areas of the clonal colony to see how they regenerate. Some areas have fences around them to try to keep out wildlife. Other conservation efforts include the removal of brush and shrubbery to try to encourage the growth of young trees. A few monitored areas have no fences whatsoever. Scientists note that fencing to keep out herbivores seems to have the best results compared to other efforts.
Naturalists hope that controlling herbivores in other aspen groves may have similar results. This is especially true for tree species that need help or areas in danger of losing large swaths of trees.
The scientific interest in saving the Pando clonal grove may come from the fascination of how organisms survive for such a long period of time. How did Pando get this way? What environmental factors led to such a huge root system? Can Pando survive global climate change? All of these answers may only come with decades or even centuries of close study. Plus, current conservation efforts give scientists a chance to implement ideas on larger scales. There may be imperative situations that require herbivore control over hundreds or thousands of acres.
One thing is certain: the Pando clonal colony is a national treasure. These trees serve as a sentinel to prehistory, and they provide a vital link in the ecosystem. Small mammals and birds use quaking aspens for shelter. Larger mammals munch on the leaves for food. The beautiful yellow canvas in October creates a treat for the eyes. All of this is thanks to 80,000 years of good genes.
Next check out the oldest vertebrate on the planet, the Greenland shark. Then, check out some of the world’s most incredible living fossils.