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The Biggest Living Thing on Earth

Pando, a huge aspen grove in Utah, is a single organism that spans 106 acres and has lived for millennia.

Grove of aspen tress

A tree is sometimes more than just a tree. Quaking aspens, North America’s most widely distributed tree, often reproduce through cloning. What appear as individual trees are instead collections of genetically identical stems.

White trunks with shimmering leaves - green in spring; yellow, orange, pink, or red in fall - shoot up as suckers from a single massive root system. Each clonal aspen stand is a single being.

A single aspen clone often covers less than an acre, but sometimes more - even much more. Sometimes a tree is its own forest, says National Geographic.

In south-central Utah, up near 9,000 feet on the Colorado Plateau, in a stretch of national forest dotted with juniper and sagebrush, there stands a peculiar aspen grove. Instead of dozens or even hundreds of clonal trunks, there are 47,000, all connected to a single root structure. Known as Pando - Latin for “I spread” - this behemoth stretches across 106 acres.

Pando is a celebrity. In 2006 it appeared on a postage stamp. In 2014, Utah adopted quaking aspens as the official state tree.

Pando’s magnificence is in its mass. As far as we know, at least above ground, no single living thing on Earth is heavier. At 13 million pounds, this single being is roughly as heavy as 35 blue whales, 1,000 elephants, or all the people who attended the Super Bowl in 2022.

Each trunk in Pando lives 85 to 130 years, and as each dies, new green shoots arise. Precisely how long Pando has lived is not clear; some have claimed it is 80,000 or even a million years old, but both are incredibly unlikely, says Paul Rogers, an adjunct professor of ecology at Utah State University and director of the Western Aspen Alliance. It’s probably just a few thousand years old - younger, certainly, than the last ice age, which ended about 12,000 years ago.

Whatever Pando's exact age, what a remarkable behemoth!



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