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The Clone Giants

The Clone Giants

“The Clone Giants” audio

Explore other Botanize! episodes and learn about plant reproductive systems, aspens, and Armillaria fungi.

“The Clone Giants” transcript

Hello and welcome to Botanize! I’m your host, Melissa Petruzzello, Encyclop?dia Britannica’s plant and environmental science editor. For today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about some of the largest organisms on Earth. Go ahead, take a guess. What comes to mind when you hear “Earth’s largest organism?” Maybe your first thought was the blue whale. It is the largest living animal, clocking in at 150 tons and 30 metres in length (98 feet). It is gigantic, but not the right answer. Maybe you assumed this was a trick question and vaguely guessed some sort of dinosaur. Or maybe you knew that the Argentosaurus, a long-necked, long-tailed dinosaur, was the largest land animal ever. But you would be wrong again, because it is actually still smaller than our beloved (and not extinct) blue whale, and, as we already said, the blue whale is not the right answer. Maybe the especially astute of you (no offense to the animal-guessers) remembered that this is a botanical podcast and guessed the giant sequoia. The giant sequoia is one of my very favorite plants, and those enormous, towering giants are, by some definitions, the most massive living things on the planet (massive, by weight, and not the tallest). The largest single specimen of giant sequoia, the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park, is 83 metres tall (272 feet) and has a total estimated weight of 6,167 tons. So much biomass! But even with that botanical guess, you would not be technically correct, although the right answers are kind of mind-bending. The largest individual organisms on Earth (that we know of) are a tree that looks like a forest named Pando, and an enormous tree-killing mushroom that apparently still needs a cute name. These individuals are both way bigger than you’re probably thinking, and are likely going to challenge how you think of the word “organism” or “individual.” But before we get to their stories, we need to talk a bit about asexual reproduction and clones.

Many organisms, like humans and most vertebrate animals, reproduce only sexually. Sperm must meet egg for a new offspring to form. But many other organisms have more than one way to reproduce. It is fairly common knowledge, for example, that you can cut an earthworm in half and get two new worms, but worms also do mate with one another, though they’re hermaphrodites and so earthworm sex is still a bit unique. In the plant, fungal, and algal sides of life, multiple reproductive options are very common. A number of familiar food plants and ornamentals, like rosemary or pothos houseplants, can be grown from cuttings from the young stems. You just cut a stem off, put the cut tip in water or soil, and roots will spring forth, making a new individual. Many succulents, like agave or hen-and-chicks, sprout little clones from the base of the plant. These pups (they’re called pups) survive after the mother plant flowers and dies off. In algae, fragmentation is a common form of asexual reproduction. If a part breaks off due to wave action or other disturbance, it can often survive and persist as a new individual. Unlike sexual reproduction, where the offspring is a mix of the genes from its parents, asexually produced offspring are exactly genetically identical to the parent. They are clones. Like any evolutionary strategy, cloning and asexual reproduction has its benefits and disadvantages, with the most obvious disadvantage being that all the clones of a given parent are identically susceptible to pests and diseases. With no genetic mixing, they all have exactly the same weaknesses. They also, obviously, have exactly the same strengths, which means that if they are suited for their habitat, they can really take off. And that’s some of the explanation behind the two gigantic organisms I’m going to showcase today. But clonal offspring are, by definition of being offspring, distinct and physically separate from the parent. So, it follows that clones that are not physically separate from the parent are not really distinct individuals, right? It’s a little muddled, but sometimes these clonal “not-offsprings” form connected colonies, and that’s what we’ll be talking about today.

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First up, we have the incredible hulking Pando. Pando is a male quaking aspen tree (Populus tremuloides) in Fishlake National Forest in central Utah. If you are unfamiliar with quaking aspen, they are very iconic trees of the western U.S. with striking white-and-black trunks. They are so named because the slightest breeze causes their beautiful leaves to tremble all over. In the fall, the green changes to yellow, and the trees take on an incredible golden shimmer in the autumn winds. It is very beautiful. Important to this story is the fact that quaking aspens are also known to spread by their roots, which send up new shoots from the parent plant. Now, although Pando is considered a single individual, it doesn’t look like a single tree. Pando is actually forest of what looks like pretty standard quaking aspens. However, all the trees are genetically identical, and each one is connected to the rest (probably) by an incredible ancient and prolific root system. It’s like asexual reproduction from a spreading root system, except the offspring have never separated from whatever once was the parent plant. Indeed, Pando means “I spread” in Latin, and the forest-clone is estimated to be 80,000 years old, if not more. A given tree in Pando has the normal life span of a normal quaking aspen, but this root system has been supporting the Pando clone-forest for millennia. It even seems that the system can redirect water from some trees to others that need it. Which makes a lot of sense if you can wrap your mind around the fact that this forest really is one interconnected individual. So, the Pando trees may come, the Pando trees may go, but the spreading Pando root system is forever, basically.

So how big is Pando? Get ready. Pando comprises about 47,000 quaking aspen trees, which, to reiterate, are all connected, as far as anyone can tell, and are definitely clones of one another. Pando occupies about 43 hectares (106 acres), and all that biomass is estimated to weigh 6,600 tons, which does surpass old General Sherman the giant sequoia. So, technically, Pando is the most massive (by weight) organism in the world, though most scientists like to qualify that with “clonal organism” to be fair to the poor giant sequoias. At 80,000 years old, it is also likely that it is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, known organism on the planet. Most massive and oldest, not too bad for something you could easily drive by and simply dismiss as “ooh, pretty forest.”

And yet, despite its longevity and shimmering glory, Pando seems to be dying. New trees haven’t been seen in about 40 years, so Pando is no longer growing. Older trees are dying off, and many of the standing trees are in their twilight years, with no young saplings to replace them. As is too often the case, human activity seems to be involved. Having killed off most of the apex predators of the area (grizzly bears, mountain lions, and wolves), humans have created a landscape in which the mule deer are unnaturally abundant. These deer obviously need to eat, and it seems that they especially enjoy quaking aspen seedlings and have been munching on the young Pando clones as they pop up. And, by the way, if you remember from episode four, about the otters, this type of thing is called a trophic cascade. And then there’s the cattle. It turns out that cattle are allowed into Pando for two weeks a year under a U.S. Forest Service grazing allotment. These two weeks are certainly not helping any baby Pando clones, and one study even found that those two weeks of cattle grazing exert four times as much grazing pressure on the forest as do mule deer grazing over the course of the entire season. I mean, come on. How lucky is Utah to have such a magnificent, unusual forest-of-a-single-tree in their care? Hopefully, this awe-inspiring giant will get some appropriate land-management, STAT, and those young clones will get a chance to grow up and keep Pando going before it is too late.

If you thought Pando sounded big at 43 hectares, our next superlative organism, a honey mushroom in Oregon, will knock your socks off. Known as the most extensive organism on Earth, this particular fungus covers a whopping 965 hectares, that’s 2,385 acres, in a national forest. Put another way, this humongous fungus would span 1,665 football fields. What?! Disappointingly, however, this giant fungus does not look like a magical fairyland of one bazillion mushrooms, nor, as a fake photo shows on the internet, does it produce enormous mushrooms that could shelter humans below their ridiculous caps. No, a visit to the honey mushroom’s territory is probably not even as exciting to visit as Pando might be (unless you happen to be a field mycologist, then I imagine you’d be stoked out of your mind). But that’s because this fungus for most of the year is not much to look at. It consists of thin strands, some of which resemble black shoestrings, that creep through the trees and in the soil. If you are unfamiliar with fungus biology, it might help to know that most of the body of a fungus, of any fungus, consists of little, branching, stringlike threads. They grow through the soil or on trees, and some are practically microscopic. The characteristic mushroom, which most of us usually think of as the fungus, is actually just the reproductive structure of the larger, more amorphous organism. And that holds true for any fungus that produces mushrooms (and not all fungi produce mushrooms). But, yeah, most of it is out of sight. So, back to the honey mushroom of unusual size. It is mostly a stringy, ever-expanding, and connected, colonial network of unassuming fungus body. But, in the fall, the forest throughout its territory is sprinkled with its reproductive bodies, the mushrooms, which are, surprise surprise, honey-coloured. And, while we usually think of mushrooms as kind of adorable and maybe deadly if eaten, the cutesy honey mushrooms of this enormous fungus represent infection and death for the poor trees they’ve sprouted on. This honey mushroom, whose scientific name is Armillaria ostoyae, causes Armillaria root disease, which mostly kills conifer trees, like pines, in North America. Based on its current growth rate, and, unlike Pando, it is still expanding, this specimen is estimated to be 2,400 years old, which is pretty dang old for a fungus.

You might be asking yourself, How did anyone ever figure out that this unassuming, stringy fungus was a single organism? Well, this is where the fact that it kills trees is relevant, as a team of forestry scientists went out to map the population of this pathogenic fungus. They documented the extent of the honey mushroom infestation and took samples as they went. They then paired random samples together in petri dishes in a lab. If two pieces of fungi fuse, then they are from the same individual. And pair after pair after pair fused and fused, showing that all of the samples were from the same individual. They then used a technique called DNA fingerprinting to confirm their incredible suspicions, and, lo and behold, this giant fungus really was one giant fungus. And that’s how we came to know that the world’s most extensive organism lives in Oregon. There are other known fungal giants out there, but, so far, this one in Oregon takes the cake for its giant deadly colony.

It is hard for us to grasp the idea of centuries-old, massive, spreading organisms like Pando and the honey mushroom. Being an individual, for us, usually means something much much smaller. Even the most massive individuals, like a blue whale or one giant sequoia, make sense as discrete, single organisms. But a clonal forest, or a shapeless expanse of fungal threads? That’s harder to wrap the mind around. In both cases, though, the plant and the fungus consist of a set of genetically identical cells that are in communication with one another and that have a common purpose, or at least can coordinate themselves. And that idea, of cells working together for an end, sounds a lot like an individual. And, in fact, science agrees, so, there’s also that.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about a plant and a fungus that are way larger and older than any ol’ animal could ever hope to be. I mean, I know it’s not a competition, but nonanimal life really has some skills. So, let your takeaway from this episode be the idea of growth without ceasing. It’s a pretty good motto.

For Britannica’s Botanize! podcast series, I’m Melissa Petruzzello. Thank you so much for listening to episode five, “The Clone Giants,” which was produced by Kurt Heintz. Until next time, stay curious!

This program is copyrighted by Encyclop?dia Britannica, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Pando The giant honey mushroom
Melissa Petruzzello
The Clone Giants
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