Pando The World’s Oldest Living Organism

I read about the Pando tree today, thanks to this aside that I posted. It’s incredible to think that such an organism acutally exists. The Pando tree almost sounds like it’s straight out of science-fiction. In fact, I can think of numerous examples in science-fiction that are very similar to this concept. Right now the only one that I can think off clearly is the Pattern Jugglers of Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds.

Contrary to the title of this post, it hasn’t been actually scientifically confirmed that the Pando tree is 80000 years old. It could be even older. As much as a million years old. There could also be other root systems in Utah that are older, but have been less studied than Pando.

Pando (or The Trembling Giant[1]) is a clonal colony of a single male Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) tree located in the U.S. state of Utah, all determined to be part of a single living organism by identical genetic markers[2] and one massive underground root system. The plant is estimated to weigh collectively 6,000 tonnes (6,615 tons),[3] making it the heaviest known organism.[4] The root system of Pando is claimed by some to be among the oldest known living organisms in existence at 80,000 years of age,[5] though the method used to produce this estimate (an estimate on when climatic conditions were last suitable for seedling germination) is not supported by current evidence of germination.[6]

Pando is thought to have grown for much of its lifetime under ideal circumstances: frequent fires have prevented its main competitor, conifers, from colonizing the area, and climate change, transitioning from a wet and humid weather pattern to semi-arid, has obstructed widespread seedling establishment and the accompanying rivalry from younger aspens.

During intense fires, the organism survived by its root system, sending up new stems in the aftermath of each wildfire. If its postulated age is correct, the climate into which Pando was born is markedly different from that of today, and it may be as many as ten millennia since Pando’s last successful flowering, according to an OECD report

The clonal colony encompasses 43 hectares (107 acres) and has around 47,000 stems, which continually die and are renewed by its roots. Many of the stems are connected by its root system. The average age of Pando’s trunks (or technically, stems) is 130 years, as deciphered by tree rings.

In comparison to Pando’s most widely held total age of 80,000 years, the most accepted view among anthropologists is that Homo sapiens first migrated out of Africa to Eurasia and Oceania only 40,000 years ago and finally to the Americas 10,000 years ago.

Some experts speculate that Pando’s reign since 1992 as the heaviest-known organism may be short lived. Less well-studied Quaking Aspens in Utah may be 80 hectares in extent and one million years old. Other large colonies could exist elsewhere. A clonal colony of at least seven Coastal Redwoods could weigh more,[9] although no such stand is known to exist. Other scientists think that portions of Pando’s root system may be dead and might have led the plant to split into separate groups and therefore would not be one organism, though the collective groups would remain the same singular, genetic individual.

Tree experts also note that the organism’s age cannot be determined with the level of precision found in tree rings; some claim Pando’s age is closer to 1 million years.[4] Its current 80,000 year designation is based on a complex set of factors including the history of its local environment such as: The evidence indicating that there are few if any naturally occurring new aspens in most of the western United States since a climate shift took place 10,000 years ago and eliminated favorable soil conditions for seedlings; the rate of growth (including the differences of rates in distinct climates when accounting for its local-climate history, that males grow slower than females, and that aspens grow slower at higher elevations – Pando is at 2697 m, or 8,848 ft, above sea level); its size; and its genetic code in comparison to the mutations found among aspens born in the modern era.

Author: range

I'm mathematician/IT strategist/blogger from Canada living in Taipei.