The Biggest Organism on Earth

Blue whales [Balaenoptera musculus] are the
biggest animals ever to exist on earth. They can weigh upwards of 150 tons, which is more
than the largest dinosaurs! But the blue whale is not the biggest living thing. That title goes to…. well, it depends on
what you mean by “biggest”! The tallest may be a redwood tree [Sequoia
sempervirens] nicknamed “Hyperion” in California. At a towering 115M, this giant is taller than
the statue of liberty [at 93M…show it’s 25% taller]. The most extensive organism is a very old
“humongous fungus” that covers a whopping 2,385 acres in a national forest in Oregon.
At the base of the trees, bunches of “honey mushrooms” [Armillaria solidipes] appear…
they are the “fruiting bodies” produced by the fungus, which otherwise lives out of sight
– imagine if apple trees [Malus domestica] grew underground and only the apples were
visible to us! That’s basically what the fungus does, except that it spreads its “mycelia”
not just through the soil but also through the roots and bark of trees in the forest,
attacking them and stealing their nutrients so it can continue spreading outwards. However, if we’re talking about the good old
heaviest organism ever found, that prize goes to a giant panda [Ailuropoda melanoleuca]
living high on a Utah plateau. Just kidding… It goes to a single quaking
aspen [Populus tremuloides] named “Pando” that weighs over 6,000 tonnes – as much as
forty blue whales. If you go to Fishlake National Forest, though,
you won’t see a giant tree trunk – you’ll just see a forest of regular-sized trees.
But, thanks to genetic testing, we’ve learned that this stand of aspen covering 106 acres
of land is actually a single clonal organism that grew from a lone seed long ago. That
single tree was able to spread so much because its roots send up shoots that grow into what
look like individual trees. Since all 47,000 “trees” are part of the same
organism, the forest behaves somewhat unusually, for example, the entire forest transitions
simultaneously from winter to spring and uses its vast network of roots to distribute water
and nutrients from trees with plenty to trees in need. Speaking of water… if you include water
when weighing these giant organisms, then the humongous fungus might actually weigh
more than Pando. But foresters, at least, care only about the mass actually produced
during growth: the dry mass. And since fungi are mostly water Pando wins. Either way, it’s likely that some of the belowground
connections, whether roots or mycelia have become severed over time, meaning these giants
are probably made up of smaller, but still ginormous and genetically identical, patches. And finally, because of the extensive testing
required to confirm “biggest anything” claims, the fungus and aspen can only profess to be
the largest living organisms ever found – there may be even bigger monsters lurking right
under our feet, just waiting to be discovered!


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