As Utah's biggest and oldest resident, 'he' may be dying

Published: Monday, June 9 2014 11:10 a.m. MDT

A grove of aspen trees near Fish Lake was identified as the world's largest living thing. The grove, known as Pando, is in declining health.

John Hollenhorst, Deseret News

FISHLAKE NATIONAL FOREST — Utah's oldest and largest resident is in declining health and deep trouble, just as his bulk and longevity are attaining more fame around the world.

"It's a tough situation without a really easy solution," said biologist Paul C. Rogers of Utah State University.

Pando — a grove of aspen trees near Fish Lake — was identified years ago as the world's largest living thing. Scientists believe nearly 50,000 trees are genetically identical. Most, if not all, of the trees are believed to be connected at the roots underground and form what is essentially one huge plant covering more than 100 acres.

"It's the largest living thing that we know of," Rogers said. "And I have to say that clearly: that we know of, that are genetically identical."

Scientists gave the stand of aspens the name Pando, Latin for "I spread." And, yes, Pando is a he; aspens come in two sexes and Pando is "definitely male," Rogers said.

Many people — particularly fishermen — have driven their vehicles right through Pando over the years without realizing they are within the world's oldest living thing. A paved highway, state Route 25, plunges right through Pando as it approaches Fish Lake. There's even a campground surrounded by Pando's beauty.

Now the giant plant is also gaining fame as one of the oldest organisms on Earth. A spectacular new coffee-table book celebrates Pando for the vast span of time that he has lived.

"Pando is one of my favorites and one of many people's favorites," said Rachel Sussman, author of "The Oldest Living Things In The World."

No one really knows how long Pando has been growing. Sussman accepts one scientist's estimate of 80,000 years. Although the estimate is based on the average spread rate of aspen clones, Rogers said it could be wrong. "I think it's not much better than a guess," he said.

Nevertheless, Sussman's book ranks Pando as the third oldest living thing on Earth. A bed of interconnected sea-grass in the Mediterranean Sea is believed to be about 100,000 years old; a genetically identical colony of bacteria in Siberia may have lived for 700,000 years.

"I think (Pando) captures our imagination," Sussman said. "For one thing, just being so mind-blowing that an organism could live that long. It's also incredibly beautiful."

She calls her new book of photos and essays a mixture of art and science, featuring organisms more than 2,000 years old. "To be able to connect to these organisms that have been alive and witnessed millennia of growth and change in the world is something really remarkable."

Pando may have survived many millennia before man's arrival, living through numerous ups and downs of climate, but he's evidently struggling to survive in the modern age. He's dying, one tree at a time.

"I'm not finding any young trees at all here," Rogers said as he conducted a biological survey deep inside Pando's far-flung forest. "There should be a lot of sprouts coming up."

Aspen clones spread by creating new sprouts that emerge from the ground and become new tree-trunks. The new trees help the clone maintain its health through the centuries by replacing trunks that age out and die. But in the last few years, many old trees have fallen and few young trees have replaced them. Pando is now mostly old trees, waiting to die.

Rogers believes the finger of blame points to human activity. "If something's been around a very long time and is very large and it's suddenly falling apart," Rogers said, "it probably points back to us."

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