A common question for biologists might be “what’s the oldest animal?” Depending on how you look at it, there are several options. I gather most people would be interested in examples closer to home, like the oldest human who became over 122 years old, or Creme Puff the cat who allegedly lived for a few days over 38 years. But technically, you’d have to say Hydra species which are immortal in a certain way: in an adult stage they can revert back to an immature polyp stage. This going back and forth essentially means they are biologically immortal, if they can avoid predation and diseases. There’s also ways for organisms (not just animals) to survive in another way, through seeds and spores. There’s more than one example of centuries old seeds which have been revived and germinate to a full adult plant. As a little throwback to a previous post, Jurassic Park’s premise is technically not entirely impossible. In particular, scientists have been able to revive a kind of yeast which was trapped in amber about 25 million years ago. The microbiologist in question later on founded his own brewery with strains of those ancient yeasts. The beer is said to have a… unique… taste. As for examples that don’t really cheat, there’s plenty of trees which are ancient as well, the oldest thought to be over 5000 years.
Another similar question is what’s the biggest, longest or the heaviest organism, which are a bit more related to each other, but not necessarily so. Again, there’s several ways of answering each of these questions. Do you only count one individual? If not, you can mention ants outweigh humans easily if you combine their weight. Does the species still have to exist? Depending on what you want, the blue whale and certain dinosaurs like Giraffatitan are definitely up there for being the biggest (and usually heaviest to go along with it). There’s that Humongous Fungus in Oregon as well, spanning 8.4 square kilometers underground, as well as being almost two and a half millennia old. However, as for longest in the sea, you have the Lion’s mane jellyfish which is longer than the blue whale due to its tentacles reaching to 37 meters, but is not quite as heavy (it being mostly an amorphous blob and all). There’s also the Praya dubia, an incredibly long (40 meters) organism alike to the Portuguese man o’ war as it’s actually a colony of tiny little things of the same species, but have diversified into different roles. Yet all these animals are defeated again, though only slightly, this time by algae. Giant kelp can reach up to 45 meters in length.
I think that it’s quite clear now, that everything is debatable. There’s also the issue of having accurate measurements and not relying on anecdotal mentions of an extraordinary large individual of a certain species. There’s little doubt that the Armillaria fungus is huge and that the Humongous Fungus deserves its top spot in the “Biggest Organism” category, but you shouldn’t take Robert Wadlow’s length and say that humans are taller than a horse. It makes for a neat story, but that’s all it should. Fortunately, I’m all about stories. Just know that you have to be a bit careful on what the answers can be, depending on the semantics.
In any case, I’m now going to talk about Pando, living in the Fishlake National Forest of Utah. Pando is among all of these lists, it’s really old, it’s really heavy and it spans a reasonable area as well. Pando (Latin for “I spread”) is a clonal colony of a male quaking aspen. It looks like a grove, a small forest, but it being clonal means that each and every “individual” trunk you see (in biology called the ramets), is genetically completely identical and in essence one and the same “individual”, named the genet (this ideology can have a lot of repercussions for twins, I know). Pando has one big root system, connecting all the ramets. This root system is about 80,000 years old, putting Pando on one list already. It spans about 43 hectares, placing it on the biggest one as well, and all this combined weight of wood (about 6,000 tons) easily makes it to the top position of heaviest organism in the world.
Pando was able to get this big because of lack of competitors, which were kept at bay through forest fires. Pando itself was able to survive all these fires through that extensive underground root system. However, because Pando is so old, the conditions it first found itself in were much different from what it is today, meaning it hasn’t flowered in ages. The seeds themselves have a hard time to sprout as well. This is not that much of a problem as Pando itself lives on, at least for now. Pando is, unfortunately, dying. Drought, insects and disease are thought to be the cause, though they’re not exactly sure. Efforts are made to conserve the grove by experimenting with parts of Pando, in the hopes they find a solution for the whole. Sometimes, being all the same is beneficial, sometimes it is not, at all. If Pando can’t produce new, viable seeds, and whatever it is killing it doesn’t get treated, Pando is doomed to disappear.
This blog was brought to you by: Gabrielle Aplin – Panic Cord