In the Fishlake National Forest in Utah, a giant has lived quietly for the past 80,000 years.
The Trembling Giant, or Pando, is an enormous grove of quaking aspens that take the “forest as a single organism” metaphor and literalizes it: the grove really is a single organism. Each of the approximately 47,000 or so trees in the grove is genetically identical and all the trees share a single root system. While many trees spread through flowering and sexual reproduction, quaking aspens usually reproduce asexually, by sprouting new trees from the expansive lateral root of the parent. The individual trees aren’t individuals, but stems of a massive single clone, and this clone is truly massive. Spanning 107 acres and weighing 6,615 tons, Pando was once thought to be the world’s largest organism (now usurped by thousand-acre fungal mats in Oregon), and is almost certainly the most massive. In terms of other superlatives, the more optimistic estimates of Pando’s age have it as over one million years old, which would easily make it one of the world’s oldest living organisms.
Unfortunately, the future of the giant appears grim. According to Paul Rogers, an ecologist at Utah State University in an October 2010 article in the Deseret News, the Trembling Giant is in danger. While the mature stems of Pando routinely die from the eternal problems of pests and drought, the regenerative roots of the organism that are responsible for Pando’s resilience are under attack as well. Rogers reported a marked absence of juvenile and young stems to replace the older trunks, blaming overgrazing by deer and elk. Without new growth, to replace the old, the Trembling Giant is vulnerable to a catastrophic, sudden withering and shrinking. Rogers confessed, “It’s slipping away very quickly.”
The quaking aspen is named for its leaves, which stir easily in even a gentle breeze and produce a fluttering sound with only the slightest provocation. The effect of this in Pando, multiplied over the tens of thousands of trees and hundred acres, can be unnerving, giving a real sense of life to the ancient, dying, trembling giant.
Update: As of 2013 there is currently a restoration project underway. Parts of Pando are fenced off, allowing new shoots to grow undisturbed, and can be seen from parts of the road.
Know Before You Go
One mile southwest of Fish Lake on SR-25. Doctor Creek Rec Site is a US National Forest Service Campground located within Pando, if you want to spend a night inside a giant, ancient organism.
- Discover Magazine: The Trembling Giant: http://discovermagazine.com/1993/oct/thetremblinggian285
- Deseret News: Central Utah's Pando, world's largest living thing, is threatened, scientists say" (October 2010): http://www.deseretnews.com/mobile/article/700071982/Central-Utahs-Pando-worlds-largest-living-thing-is-threatened-scientists-say.html
- Backpacker: Natural Wonders: Pando Aspen Colony, UT: http://www.backpacker.com/natural_wonders_largest_aspen_pando_utah/destinations/14520