Even though the Aspen looks like a forest, in reality, it is all just one big tree with a big, intricate root system
Some living beings have been alive for such a long time that they have seen all the changes the world has been through. Long before human civilization had even begun, this colony of Quaking Aspen trees in Utah was already thriving. It is actually said to be the oldest living organism to exist in the world. Its age is estimated at about 80,000 years. There is no other individual tree that is currently alive and is anywhere near this age. To those who are unaware, the Aspen tree colony may look like a forest. But in reality, it is all just one big tree.
The grove is also referred to as the Pando or the Trembling Giant. Pando in Latin means, "I Spread" which is apt for the nature of the tree. The World reports that the Aspen grows all across North America in groups called stands. The trees are capable of cloning themselves and have managed to expand across the landscape. But they are all connected through one big, intricate root system. A single tree will spread, in the stands, by sprouting new stems from its roots. The trees are often spaced several feet from the original trunk.
“Those trees remain connected for a good long while,” Jennifer DeWoody, a geneticist with the US Forest Service explained. “This long process is over many years — suckers [or stems] coming up over a larger and larger area.” Each of the stems has a life span of about 100-150 years. So in all likeliness, the original stem, or the mother stem is long gone. The Pando stems share the products of photosynthesis, food, to survive and possibly disease as well. “The only way the whole clone survives is to send up new suckers,” DeWoody added. There are many other trees that also clone in a similar way but it is the aspen that does it broadly and across many different environments.
The tree system is not only the oldest but may just be the heaviest as well. Taken as a whole, according to Treehugger, all the individual trunks, branches, and leaves weigh in at an estimated 6,600 short tons. University of Colorado scientists estimated in 1976 that it contained around 47,000 stems. It was also in the early 1970s that Burton V Barnes of the University of Michigan discovered that the grove was one large organism. Over time some parts of the root system have died off and have actually formed separate entities, by extension, separate organisms as well.
This tree system sounds like the perfect recipe for an everlasting existence well after human civilization has ended. But Paul Rogers, an ecology professor at Utah State University and director of the Western Aspen Alliance told The Salt Lake Tribune that the tree is dying from within. “We’re sort of in an emergency situation in terms of the next five to 10 years." The main cause for this emergency is animals are eating it faster than it can regenerate. “There’s no next generation,” Rogers stated. “We have a system in which the whole demography is senior citizens only. If we had a town made up of all 85- to 90-year-old people, it would not be very sustainable for very long."
He added, “More than 80 percent of the entire Pando clone is in a nonsustainable state that has the potential to collapse and significantly reduce the size of this world’s largest organism in the next 10 to 20 years.” Herbivores, mostly deer have been munching on the highly nutritious trees. Rogers says the problem is actually created by humans and our game management strategies and these strategies need to be reconsidered if we want to protect Pando. "Aspen is a keystone species," he said. "So as aspen goes so do all those dependent species. So that’s the number one reason."