On the western edge of the Colorado Plateau in south-central Utah sits one of the oldest and most massive living organisms in the world: Pando.
Based on the ominous-sounding name, you’d think it would be some sort of Godzilla-sized panda bear. You’d be wrong, though. It’s ... well, it’s a bunch of trees. Quaking aspens to be precise. But that doesn’t make Pando any less impressive than what you were imagining. (OK, maybe a little bit less impressive; it neither bellows its name nor shoots flames out of its mouth.)
Consisting of somewhere around 47,000 trees, Pando spreads out over 106 acres of the Fishlake National Forest. In fact, its name is Latin for “I spread.” Instead of just flowering and reproducing sexually like a lot of trees, aspen trees often just branch off from the same root system as their predecessors. In other words, they’re kind of like clones of the other trees in their immediate vicinity, but they’re still a part of the organism they’re cloned from, like one giant, creepy horror-movie monster. If they continue living and reproducing long enough, you end up with Pando — all 6,600 tons of it.
Pando’s individual trees might not be that old, just a century or two. But the rest of it — the part you don’t see — is another story.
You know all those parks with large, old trees like Sequoias, where they often have diagrams in which they point out which tree rings coincide with events from recorded human history? Pando dwarfs those in age. Conservative estimates suggest that it is about 80,000 years old, which means it came to exist at the same time Neanderthals were painting cave walls in southern Europe. Other studies suggest that it’s maybe even a million years old. Either way, it’s old AF – there were still mammoths wandering around for the majority of its life. A life that may soon end, it turns out.
Before you jump to conclusions, though, it may not be our fault Pando is dying. At least not directly. Researchers believe that over-browsing from deer and elk is preventing young stems from growing into larger trunks. At the same time, diseases and insects are attacking the existing trees. If enough of Pando is weakened or killed, it could shrink and die.
The Forest Service and other organizations are trying to prevent Pando’s demise by trying to stimulate its roots to encourage new sprouting. Whether or not these methods will work remains to be seen.
In the meantime, you can totally travel to commune with Pando. Peak Pando-viewing season is during the fall when its leaves turn yellow and orange. The Fishlake’s Doctor Creek Campground is technically inside of Pando, which means you can sleep surrounded by a creature that is several times older than the entirety of human civilization. Who knows? The rustling of its leaves in the wind might impart some sort of primordial wisdom to you. Failing that, there are hiking trails in the area and Fish Lake (truth in advertising) is famous for its huge Mackinaw lake trout.