In the Fishlake National Forest in Utah (pictured above), there is a colony of quaking aspen that is an estimated 80,000 years old, though no individual tree currently alive is anywhere near that age. Even the oldest non-clonal trees in the world, at some 4,000+ years of age, don’t approach the age of the root system of this organism, known as Pando, or the Trembling Giant.
On the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, a single root system has been metabolically alive for 80,000 years. Or maybe more: There’s some debate on the age, with that figure being a conservative estimate.
Taken as a whole, all the individual trunks, branches and leaves weigh in at an estimated 6,600 short tons: The heaviest known organism on the planet.
And it’s a tree, or, rather, trees, operating on an entirely different time scale that most other plants and certainly any animal, covering 106 acres.
Let that all sink in.
A single organism has been alive for all of recorded human history and well into prehistory, growing above ground, in a climate suitable for it, sometimes being driven back by fire above ground but remaining alive below, since the Late Pleistocene period, at the start of the last glacial period, over 60,000 years before the ice age would reach its maximum extent.
In terms of human development, it’s the paleolithic period. Humans existed in small bands around the world, hunting and gathering. Anatomically and behaviorally, these are modern humans. In other parts of the planet, neanderthal were over 30,000 years from going extinct. Over in what’s now Indonesia, Homo floriensis flourished. All of which is to say, that Homo sapiens weren’t the only tool-using people on the block.
Except that in North America, humans had not yet even arrived on the scene. When this tree colony first came into being, it would be another 50,000 years before humans started coming over from Asia, into Alaska, and then moving down towards the Trembling Giant. By the time any human being set eyes on this grove, it was already, from our perspective, older than ancient.
I could go on and on, listing the chronology of everything that’s happened to Pando, but you get the picture. Its history is one where humanity is but a blip—albeit right now, and from the perspective of our limited lifespan, a blip that is doing a whole lot of disruption to Earth.
Will Pando live through the Anthropocene and all the changes we’re causing on the climate?
Photo Credit: Mark Muir (, specifically ) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Mat McDermott, TreeHugger