Deep within the central plateaus of North America, there is a seemingly normal deciduous forest. So ordinary looking in fact that if one was to walk through it, there would be no indication that you would be standing on the largest and possibly oldest living organism on the planet. Pando or ‘the trembling giant’ is the name of a clonal colony of quaking aspen (Populus termuloides) stretching across 100 acres of Fishlake National Forest, Utah. Although trees within the forest appear to be individual organisms, they are in fact thousands of shoots from one connecting root system underground. Making the forest essentially one extremely large tree.
Although clonal colonies of trees are not uncommon throughout North America, it is the sheer size of Pando that makes it unique. Thought to weigh approximately 6,000 tons, and consisting of nearly 50,000 tree clones, it is by far the largest of its kind. Quaking aspen is a beautiful species of tree that produces vibrant yellow leaves in the autumn, providing a stunning contrast to its bright silver bark.
In recent years Pando has come under threat due to a high number of deer grazing its forest. Frequent grazing destroys or stunts the growth of new shoots from the connected root system underground. Although Fishlake National Forest allows deer to be hunted, numbers still continue to be high enough to cause noticeable damage. Measures such as fencing have been set up to protect areas of new growth from both deer and human activities, however this raises complaints about disrupting the natural beauty of the site.
The impact of deer on forests is a problem found across the globe. Although sometimes beneficial, at high population densities they can be extremely detrimental to new vegetation. Grazing pressure can stop the growth of young shrubs and trees, as well as affecting tree regeneration once damaged. This affects the vertical structure of woodlands, limits biodiversity and decreases productivity. Management strategies such as providing fencing, tree shelters, and ensuring there are no barriers to deer dispersal are ways to potentially reduce damage. More invasive deer control methods such as translocation or culling may be a more rapid solution to the problem.
Protective measures continue to be revised by the U.S Forest Service to ensure the survival of the colony. With Pando being so old and having a lack of innate resilience due to its constant clonal production, it is possible that the colony is simply unable to keep up with the rapidly changing ecosystem of today without human aid. Pando, latin for “I spread”, may be ironically starting to dwindle.
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