Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Speaking of Science: A most massive organism shrinks

Speaking of Science
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The Pando aspen clone, as seen from a distance, is the green foreground and middle (not yellow). This is about half of the total grove. (Lance Oditt/Studio 47.60° North)

If you define the world's single biggest organism by mass, that honor goes to a tree grove in Utah. All 47,000 aspen trees are genetically identical clones that sprout from a single root system. The grove, named Pando (Latin for "I spread"), covers 106 acres and clocks in at 13 million pounds — a mass equivalent to about 45 adult blue whales.

But the Pando clone is in peril. The organism is aging. Estimates put Pando's root system as old as the last ice age, tens of thousands of years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; individual trees could be more than 130 years old. Upstart offshoots, however, are rare, a deficit that conservationists attribute to heavy browsing by deer and cattle.

Researchers in Utah attempted to protect a section of the grove, as New Scientist reported in 2016. Paul Rogers, an ecologist with Utah State University and the Western Aspen Alliance, and his colleagues, fenced in about one-sixth of the grove to keep grazers out. The first three years, Rogers told New Scientist, were promising. The young offshoots began to grow back.

A study this week in the journal PLOS One recasts those findings in a grimmer light. The researchers fenced in half of Pando, and that larger area is failing, the study concludes. The mule deer may be able to jump over the fence or may have found its weak point, the authors say. "While Pando has likely existed for thousands of years — we have no method of firmly fixing its age — it is now collapsing on our watch," Rogers said in a statement Wednesday. "One clear lesson emerges here: We cannot independently manage wildlife and forests."


What's also increasingly clear is that both extremes of the living world, the littlest and biggest things, need our help.


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