Forget Zion and Bryce — ever been to Pando?

Sunday , November 05, 2017 - 12:00 AM

By BENJAMIN KELLER
TX. Correspondent

Growing up and living in Utah can certainly be a unique experience. Many of our state’s most remarkable and admired features are the exceptional outdoor vistas, ranging from expansive mountain fronts to diverse national parks full of numerous unique rock formations.

While Utah’s five national parks are very well-known and visited, there is one feature in Utah that does not seem to be common knowledge at all to state residents, but is still uniquely famous on a worldwide scale. 

It’s “Pando,” a clonal colony of aspen trees found in the Fishlake National Forest, just southwest of the lake, in Sevier County. What makes Pando so famous is that it is actually 80,000 years old, and weighs more than 6,600 tons, making it one of the oldest and heaviest organisms on the planet!

Now you may be asking yourself, “How is it possible for a tree to have lived this long, and weigh so much?”

Well, the unique thing about aspen trees is that when a single tree grows, its roots expand outward and sprout into genetically identical trees, or clones. So oftentimes when you see an aspen grove you are actually seeing just one organism even though you see many different trees. All of these trees grow from, and are connected through, an enormous underground root system making them all one organism with the exact same genetics.

Spreading aspens

So in terms of the Pando clone, all of the many trees, branches, leaves and roots make up the enormous combined weight of more than 6,600 tons! Individual trees within the clone have a normal lifetime of around 150 years, but when these trees die many more are already growing to take their place. This allows the organism to live for potentially thousands of years, until some outside event prevents the trees from cloning any further.

In Latin, the name Pando means “I spread,” which is quite appropriate as most aspen clones don’t live nearly as long, or grow as large as Pando has.

These unique features of Pando have generated interest among scientific researchers and the public communities. Just a few weeks ago myself and the rest of the seniors in the International Baccalaureate Program at Ogden High had the opportunity to visit Pando, near Richfield, and spend some time in the clone while practicing field research techniques.

I found that actually being in the clone and walking among all of the trees was a very different experience from just learning and hearing about Pando’s immensity.

The rare situation of seeing thousands of trees and knowing that they are all part of one living thing is quite unique and remarkable. One really has to see Pando to comprehend its immeasurable size. As part of our observations our group was able to see how the cloned trees had spread down the hillside, expanding the colony to its current size.

On the decline

Unfortunately part of the purpose behind our program’s visit to Pando was to study its current decline. For an aspen clone to continue to thrive, new trees have to grow from the root system and currently that is not happening. The older trees in the clone are dying as part of the natural course of their existence, but they are not being replaced by enough young sprouts to maintain the colony’s existence.

My peers and I were able to conduct research relating to the possible causes of decline among the trees. Some of us looked specifically at diseases that could limit the long-term growth of a tree, and others observed instances of overgrazing of young sprouts by deer and cattle.

There isn’t an entirely clear consensus on what is causing Pando to die, but what is clear is that if things don’t change then the organism won’t be around for long. The immensity of Pando makes it difficult for humans to reverse any harmful effects that we may have already had on the clone.

Perhaps the only thing that can be done is for more people to learn about Pando and increase awareness of its existence. Maybe then we can do something to prevent an organism that has lived for thousands of years from dying all of a sudden now.

So take a visit to the Pando clone. Do some research and learn about it, because it might not be too long before it’s all gone.

Benjamin Keller is a senior at Ogden High School. Contact him at benjaminkxc@outlook.com.

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