One of the World's Largest Organisms Is Slowly Dying Due to Humans

Thursday, 18 October 2018 - 1:33PM
Earth
Thursday, 18 October 2018 - 1:33PM
One of the World's Largest Organisms Is Slowly Dying Due to Humans
< >
Pixabay
Quick, what's the most massive living organism on the planet? It's not the blue whale, or the African elephant. It's not even one of those giant redwood trees in California, but if you guessed it was a tree, you're close. The answer is Pando, a grove of quaking aspen trees in Utah. Despite having 47,000 separate trunks that cover a whopping 103 acres, scientists have determined that every single one of them is a genetic clone linked by one huge root system. Altogether, Pando weighs an estimated 13 million pounds, but for the past 30 years, it's been slowly dying off.

The problem is that Pando's individual trees have a lifespan of between 100 and 130 years, and the older generations aren't being replaced by new stems (called ramets) because those tender young shoots are being eaten by an oversized population of mule deer. The predators that usually keep these deer in check have been all but driven out of Fishlake National Forest, Pando's home, by human recreational activity and settlement, and despite initiatives to build fences around the grove, deer are still finding their way in. In addition to the deer, humans have cleared portions of Pando to build campsites and homes.

According to a team of researchers (who recently published a paper detailing Pando's health in PLOS One): "Extrication of wild predators and prohibitions on hunting near recreation sites facilitated a 'refuge affect' for ungulates that are accustomed to people (mule deer, cattle) while discouraging those that are not (Rocky Mountain elk). This altered pattern roughly coincides with our 72-year photo sequence, when increases in road traffic, recreational home development, and campground use have flourished."

The photo sequence they reference is a series of aerial images taken of Pando's borders, which have been shrinking over the recent decades. Some of the possible solutions suggested in the paper include creating more effective fencing around the grove and allowing hunters temporary permits to thin down the deer population. "In addition to ecological values, Pando serves as a symbol of nature-human connectedness and a harbinger of broader species losses..." said ecologist Paul Rogers. "It would be shame to witness the significant reduction of this iconic forest when reversing this decline is realisable, should we demonstrate the will to do so."
Science
Science News
Earth