It is the death by a thousand bites.
Pando, the world’s largest living organism — and perhaps the oldest — is being destroyed by the voracious appetite of a mule deer.
Also known as the trembling giant, Pando is a colony of quaking aspen covers 106 acres (43 hectares) of south-central Utah. Because of an explosion of deer in the area, new sprouts of Pando are eaten before they have a chance to mature, and the venerable organism is at risk of dying out completely.
“The system is not a replacement; it is very out of balance,” said Paul Rogers, an ecologist at Utah State University and director of the Western Aspen Alliance. [See Photos of Earth’s Oldest Living creatures]
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A bunch of a tree
To the casual observer, Pando looks like a regular forest. But each tree shares a common root system and is a genetically identical clone of the forest pals. It is essentially a forest of one tree, Rogers said.
“What you all think if the trees are actually living and connected,” Rogers told Live Science. “In this forest or this forest is for me quite magical.”
Although Pando is often called the oldest living organism on Earth(with some estimates claim the state up to 80,000 years old), dating techniques for the colony are so inaccurate that no one can say for sure how old the forest is, Rogers said.
A closer look reveals that the majestic superorganism is in trouble. In short, Pando is aging quickly.
“If we are a community of 50,000 people and each of them was older than 80 years, we wouldn’t have a sustainable community,” Rogers said. “That is exactly what we do with the Pando clone.”
The reason is that a mule deer, and occasionally cattle, devour the babies of the community before they have a chance to grow to adulthood. The problem has been around for dozens of years, Rogers said.
“It is clear that almost every sprout that comes up — they are technically called suckers — is eaten almost immediately as it comes out of the ground,” Rogers said.
Meanwhile, the older stems are almost all between 110 and 130 years old, which is about the average life span of individual quaking aspen stems, Rogers said. The forest floor is covered with dead trees, and no new life is coming in to replace it, ” he said.
Mule deer and other herbivores was such a problem for Pando in the past few decades in part because of the man.
“People have eliminated predators,” Rogers said.
Without wolves prowling the area of, for example, deer populations are not only explode, but the deer that regularly field more brutal. Instead of moving on quickly, they continue to hang out and munch on the nutrient-rich sprouts to their heart’s content.
“It is like a salad bar or a candy store. It is very, very desirable that these herbivores,” Rogers said.
What’s more, because the state wildlife agencies fund themselves in part by the issuance of hunting licenses, they have some incentive to keep the populations of deer are high, so that the hunters will not go home with empty hands, Rogers said. Finally, there are cabins in the vicinity of Pando, and one site is located in the forest itself, Rogers said. Because the hunting in the vicinity of human dwellings is prohibited, the deer tend to hang out in this area, because they know that they’ll be safe from the hunters, he added.
The cattle of higher ground for a few weeks per year, also cause problems, because they can trample or eat the shoots in those periods, Rogers said. [Quaking Aspen: Trees of the Mountain West]
Pando is dying, but Rogers, along with others, on the Western Aspen Alliance, an organization that works towards the promotion of a healthy aspen ecosystems, are looking for ways to save the trembling giant. Cattle, by means of the area a few weeks a year, so persuading farmers to take a slightly different route for a few weeks could help, ” he said.
In a study published in February in the journal Ecosphere, Rogers and his colleagues showed that the screens, in the cultivation of suckers and had some success in preventing deer from eating them, as long as the suckers were actively protected until they are above browse height of about 6 feet (2 meters). (Above this height, most of the mule deer is not long enough to be easy to eat these sprouts.)
However, deer sometimes manage to get through these gates, so that the screens strategy may need to be re-evaluated at a certain point, Rogers said.
Another possible solution is to hire trained professionals to clean up (read: shoot) deer, Rogers said. Let amateur hunters loose in the area of human-occupied areas such as campgrounds or in cabins is not safe, but professional snipers are trained to do so safely.
It is possible, that is cleaned and only a few animals can have a large impact. Aspen have chemical defenses that leave a bad taste in the animals’ mouth, so the deer that are munching on Pando are probably only a handful of animals that have acquired adaptations that allow them to tolerate the taste, Rogers said.
“It really is actually not a large number of chronic feeding in that area,” Rogers said.
Rogers is working with various agencies and interest groups to find ways to save Pando that everyone can live with.
“I’m optimistic,” Rogers said.
Originally published on Live Science.