Fish Lake is a beautiful alpine lake sitting at an elevation of 8,848ft in the Fish Lake National Forest in central Utah. This lake provides recreational activities like scenic drives, mountain biking, snowmobiling, hiking, camping and OHV use, as well as elk hunting and trout fishing. It is also home of one of the oldest and largest living organisms in the world, scattering out from its south west coast grows a stand of aspen known as Pando. Pando is argued to be the biggest living organism on earth but there is a parasitic honey fungus in the Blue Mountains in Oregon that covers 2385 acres to Pando’s 106 acres that may have the title. There is still some debate because Pando has more mass if you exclude water while standing on one foot, with one arm in the air, facing north so we’ll just say it’s one of the biggest.
Pando, “I Spread” in latten, is a stand of quacking aspens that is a clonal tree system, that is it is believed to be one tree with a common root system that works together to share water and nutrient’s to its 47,000+ stems. The stand reproduces by a process called suckering where new trees, known as stems, grow up from the common root system. Each tree is genetically identical and thrives or suffers with the rest of the stand. Clones get their leaves, change color, and lose their leaves at the same time, if looking at two clones side by side you can see the separation as the separate clones change color at different times. Pando covers approximately 106 acres of land, an area roughly the size of Vatican City in Rome, and weighs approximately 6,000 metric tons.
Whether it is the largest or second largest it is estimated to be somewhere between 80,000 and 1 million years old, this stand could very well be the oldest living organism on earth. That said most believe it is closer to 80,000 than 1 million. Individual trees only live 130years on average with the older trees living around 300 years. To put into prospective how long this stand of trees has existed, the first homosapians (modernish humans) were born in Africa around 200,000 years ago, 70,000 years ago earth entered it’s coldest and driest period of ice age, 60,000 years ago the first homosapians leave Africa and migrate to Australia around 50,000 years ago, they move up into Europe around 40,000 years ago at the same time the Neanderthal goes extinct, 25,000 years ago earth goes through its last glacial period of the ice age and the first humans crossed the Bering Strait around 15,000 years ago. This stand of trees has existed since homosapians were exploring Africa, and long long before humans ever stepped foot in the Americas.
But this is normal right? I mean trees live a long time don’t they? Trees do live a long time but not typically this long. As an example a bristlecone pine in California is the oldest living non-clonal or single tree in the world and it’s around 5,000 years old. The oldest giant sequoia is estimated at 3,500years old. Other clonal tree systems have been known to live 10,000-40,000 years. There is a colony of sea grass in the Mediterranean Sea that is estimated to be between 12,000 and 200,000 years old. Even the Honey Fungus that probably takes the top spot as the largest known organism is estimated at 2,000-8,500 years old.
So how did Pando get to live this long? It is believed that the first germination of Pando took place during a time when the area was wet and humid unlike the arid climate of the region today. For most of its existence it has lived under these ideal conditions. Frequent forest fires would have killed off any competitors of resources while the roots would have been safe underground with new stems suckering in the aftermath. The glacial periods that Pando lived through would have slowed her growth but not killed her off like other plant life in the area. Pando was well established when other stands of aspens were germinating allowing it to compete more aggressively for resources.
Pando is however believed to be in trouble along with the other aspen stands in the Western US. A climate shift at the end of the last glacial period about 10,000 years ago has led to less favorable soil conditions and it is believed that few if any aspens have germinated from seeding anywhere in the Western US in the last 10,000 years. This means that the only reproduction has been through suckering, cloning. While this is somewhat good for Pando, as it means no new stands are forming to compete with, it also means Pando is dealing with less than idea soil and its rate of growth is not keeping up with its rate of loss. It is also believed issues with beetles and fungus as well as over grazing from deer and elk are contributing to the decline of new growth as well as the human element of putting out forest fires before they can burn off competitors.
An effort is being made to reverse this decline by the National Forest Service. A fence has been put up around 90% of the 106 acres that house Pando to keep the deer and elk out. Prescribed burns have been done over this area and it is showing promise as it is burning off the juniper and promoting new growth. Selective removal is also being done. You can see a video put out by the forest service here.
I first heard about a grove of aspens being the largest living organism in the world from a guy at work about 10 years ago though he thought it was near Carbondale Colorado. When I was doing research for my write-up on the bristlecone pines in CA I came across info on Pando and I was captivated. As I was driving across Utah on my way to Colorado for a 5 week road trip I had to stop and camp among these trees. On the southwest coast of Fish Lake lies a camp ground known as Doctor Creek Recreational Campground. The camp ground was well maintained with a real bathroom, no showers, and a water spigot at most camp sites. Trees from Pando are scattered all around this camp ground and you can sleep among them with a great view of the lake in certain sites. Just west of the campground is the fence that protects the stand and you can walk along it and see the controlled burns and new growth.
I only had one night to spend there but with all of the recreational possibilities I will definitely be back. Unfortunately my phone took a swim the week after I was here so I lost all but the one picture I posted to FB. I was there the first week of May so none of the trees had leaves yet but it was still beautiful. When I go back I will bring my touring kayak and mountain bike and really explore the area more. I may also wait to go in the fall to see the color change.