first_imgSunlight filtering through fall foliage at the Pando aspen grove in central Utah. National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy Stock Photo Scientists first noticed the Pando shrinking in the late ’90s. They suspected elk, cattle, and most prominently deer were eating the new shoots, so in the new study Rogers and colleagues divided the forest into three experimental groups. One section was completely unfenced, allowing animals to forage freely on the baby aspen. A second section was fenced and left alone. And a third section was fenced and then treated in some places with strategies to spur aspen growth, such as shrub removal and controlled burning; in other places it was left untreated. By David ShultzOct. 17, 2018 , 2:30 PM One of the world’s largest organisms is shrinking Email Aerial photos of the Pando grove spanning 1939 to 2011, which show the grove thinning over time Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! 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Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*) USDA Aerial Photography Field Office, Salt Lake City, Utah Country * Afghanistan Aland Islands Albania Algeria Andorra Angola Anguilla Antarctica Antigua and Barbuda Argentina Armenia Aruba Australia Austria Azerbaijan Bahamas Bahrain Bangladesh Barbados Belarus Belgium Belize Benin Bermuda Bhutan Bolivia, Plurinational State of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba Bosnia and Herzegovina Botswana Bouvet Island Brazil British Indian Ocean Territory Brunei Darussalam Bulgaria Burkina Faso Burundi Cambodia Cameroon Canada Cape Verde Cayman Islands Central African Republic Chad Chile China Christmas Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands Colombia Comoros Congo Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Cook Islands Costa Rica Cote d’Ivoire Croatia Cuba Curaçao Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Djibouti Dominica Dominican Republic Ecuador Egypt El Salvador Equatorial Guinea Eritrea Estonia Ethiopia Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Faroe Islands Fiji Finland France French Guiana French Polynesia French Southern Territories Gabon Gambia Georgia Germany Ghana Gibraltar Greece Greenland Grenada Guadeloupe Guatemala Guernsey Guinea Guinea-Bissau Guyana Haiti Heard Island and McDonald Islands Holy See (Vatican City State) Honduras Hungary Iceland India Indonesia Iran, Islamic Republic of Iraq Ireland Isle of Man Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Jersey Jordan Kazakhstan Kenya Kiribati Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Kuwait Kyrgyzstan Lao People’s Democratic Republic Latvia Lebanon Lesotho Liberia Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Liechtenstein Lithuania Luxembourg Macao Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Madagascar Malawi Malaysia Maldives Mali Malta Martinique Mauritania Mauritius Mayotte Mexico Moldova, Republic of Monaco Mongolia Montenegro Montserrat Morocco Mozambique Myanmar Namibia Nauru Nepal Netherlands New Caledonia New Zealand Nicaragua Niger Nigeria Niue Norfolk Island Norway Oman Pakistan Palestine Panama Papua New Guinea Paraguay Peru Philippines Pitcairn Poland Portugal Qatar Reunion Romania Russian Federation Rwanda Saint Barthélemy Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Saint Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia Saint Martin (French part) Saint Pierre and Miquelon Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Samoa San Marino Sao Tome and Principe Saudi Arabia Senegal Serbia Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Sint Maarten (Dutch part) Slovakia Slovenia Solomon Islands Somalia South Africa South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Sudan Spain Sri Lanka Sudan Suriname Svalbard and Jan Mayen Swaziland Sweden Switzerland Syrian Arab Republic Taiwan Tajikistan Tanzania, United Republic of Thailand Timor-Leste Togo Tokelau Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tunisia Turkey Turkmenistan Turks and Caicos Islands Tuvalu Uganda Ukraine United Arab Emirates United Kingdom United States Uruguay Uzbekistan Vanuatu Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of Vietnam Virgin Islands, British Wallis and Futuna Western Sahara Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe The Pando aspen grove, located in central Utah, is the largest organism on the planet by weight. From the surface, it may look like a forest that spans more than 100 U.S. football fields, but each tree shares the exact same DNA and is connected to its clonal brethren through an elaborate underground root system. Although not quite as large in terms of area as the massive Armillaria gallica fungus in Michigan, Pando is much heavier, weighing in at more than 6 million kilograms. Now, researchers say, the grove is in danger, being slowly eaten away by mule deer and other herbivores—and putting the fate of its ecosystem in jeopardy.“This is a really unusual habitat type,” says Luke Painter, an ecologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis who was not involved with the research. “A lot of animals depend on it.”Aspen forests such as the Pando grove and many others reproduce in two ways. The first is the familiar system in which mature trees drop seeds that grow into new trees. But more commonly, aspen and some other tree species reproduce by sending out sprouts from their roots, which grow up through the soil into entire new trees. The exact amount of time it took the Pando grove to reach its modern extent is unknown, says Paul Rogers, an ecologist at Utah State University in Logan. “However, it’s very likely that it’s centuries old, and it’s just as likely that it’s millennia old.” The results were surprising: Simply keeping the deer out was enough to allow the grove to successfully recover, the team reports today in PLOS ONE. Even in the fenced-off plots where there was no burning or shrub removal, young trees were thriving.The good news, at least for Pando, is that it appears that keeping out the deer is enough to solve the problem. But fencing the entirety of the grove is neither practical nor palatable, says Rogers, who partners with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colorado, as part of the Western Aspen Alliance, a group committed to improving aspen management and restoring their ecosystems. “Everybody, including myself, doesn’t want fences around this iconic grove. We don’t want to go to nature to see a bunch of fences.”The alternative, he says, is to do something about the mule deer population. The thinning of the forest has only started to occur in the past century or so. This time frame roughly coincides with when humans entered the area, building cabins, banning hunting, and removing carnivores like wolves that would ordinarily prey on the deer. These human activities, Rogers says, has turned Pando into a safe haven for the deer, artificially inflating their numbers in the area.With the new data in hand, he’s planning to advocate for a culling of the deer population in the area. Although that may seem extreme, it may be the only chance to give Pando a chance a long-term survival. “The real problem,” Rogers says, “is that there are too many mouths to feed in this area.”last_img

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