Pando the World’s Largest Discovered Organism

Pando the world's largest discovered organism at Fishlake in central Utah Image courtesy USDA Forest Service J Zapell, Photographer
Pando, the worlds largest discovered organism at Fishlake in central Utah
Image courtesy USDA Forest Service
J. Zapell, Photographer

Pando, a sprawling aspen colony and the world’s largest discovered organism, is dying. On the lip of Fish Lake in Central Utah, Pando germinated from a seed the size of a grain of sand thousands of years ago. Now he sprawls over a hundred acres with approximately 47,000 trunks. The combination of the trunks and the extensive root system has Pando weighing in at around 13 million pounds. This giant male, which might be one of the oldest living organisms on the planet, is also prone to disease, wanted by humans to burn in stoves, and targeted by ungulates as a food source. And although Pando consists of literally tons of mature, geriatric trees, there aren’t many young volunteers replacing old trees that die.

Dr. Paul Rogers, a Utah State University scientist who’s trying to save Pando, explained the problem to me while we searched for new growth and deer scat on Pando. He said it would be like depending on a room filled with 90-year-olds to repopulate and save the human race—it’s possible, but not likely.

The age of the current mature trees that make up Pando is about 110-120 years. These ages are gleaned from a tree coring device called a borer. This information combined with others findings show that Pando took a turn for the worse about when Anglo-Americans showed up in central Utah. As they hunted apex predators like bears, wolves and mountain lions, populations of ungulates such as deer and elk increased. White settlers also added other ungulates—sheep, cows, and horses—to the ecosystem. Both domestic and wild ungulates feast on young, nutrient-filled Aspen trees. Which makes it so Pando can’t recolonize himself.

I asked Rogers if the reason he wanted to save Pando was because it was the superlative organism—the oldest and biggest on the globe, and he was quick to correct me. He questions the accuracy of age estimates for Pando based on current available science. And he believes there may even be larger aspen colonies, but we just haven’t found them yet. We know about Pando partially because a paved road goes right over his spine and partially because he almost touches Fish Lake. Rogers says he’s interested in saving Pando because the existence of this huge organism supports many dependent species and it likely holds lessons for sustainable cohabitation of this planet. As an afterthought he added, “If the colony dies on our watch, we’re doing something majorly wrong.”

There is hope for Pando. Aspen do two things really well: die and repopulate. In recent years, efforts have been implemented to preserve Pando. Paradoxically, some sections have been clear cut or burned to stimulate growth. Both techniques have produced positive results, but not enough. It seems the simplest solution to this problem might be the best—protect it from foraging ungulates. Eight-foot deer fences now encircle parts of Pando. Outside the fences, there are no new trees. Inside, however, green shoots can be seen pushing up from the dry ground.

This is Russ Beck for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy USDA Forest Service, J Zapell, Photographer
Text: Russ Beck

Sources & Additional Reading

Pando-(I Spread), Fishlake National Forest, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/fishlake/home/?cid=STELPRDB5393641

Pando-The World’s Largest Organism, Holly Strand, Wild About Utah, Sept 3, 2010, http://wildaboututah.org/pando-the-worlds-largest-organism/

Utah State Tree – Quaking Aspen, Utah’s Online Library, http://onlinelibrary.utah.gov/research/utah_symbols/tree.html

WESTERN ASPEN ALLIANCE is a joint venture between Utah State University’s College of Natural Resources and the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, whose purpose is to facilitate and coordinate research issues related to quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) communities of the west. http://www.western-aspen-alliance.org/

DeWoody J, Rowe C, Hipkins VD, Mock KE (2008) Pando lives: molecular genetic evidence of a giant aspen clone in central Utah. Western North American Naturalist 68(4), pp. 493–497. http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/aspen_bib/3164

Grant, M., J.B. Mitton, AND Y.B. Linhart. 1992. Even larger organisms. Nature 360:216. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v360/n6401/abs/360216a0.html

Grant, M. 1993. The trembling giant. Discover 14:83–88. Abstract:http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3398/1527-0904-68.4.493

Habeck, R. J. 1992. Sequoiadendron giganteum. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [Accessed September 2, 2010].

Mock, K.E., C . A. Rowe, M. B. Hooten, J. DeWoody and V. D. Hipkins. Clonal dynamics in western North American aspen (Populus tremuloides) Molecular Ecology (2008) 17, 4827–4844 http://etmd.nal.usda.gov/bitstream/10113/27665/1/IND44127848.pdf

Waxwings and Crossbills Move South

Waxwings and Crossbills Move South: Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing US FWS FWS Digital Library, David Menke, Photographer
Every winter, many of Utah’s breeding birds migrate south to avoid the cold. After the warblers, tanagers, and orioles leave each fall, we share the snowy winter with hardier residents, such as chickadees, nuthatches, and juncos. But even hardier birds breed in the far north and venture south to Utah only during the most severe winters.

CEDW call, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, Audio file copyright 2007, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved

Many people are familiar with the high, thin calls of Cedar Waxwings. Less frequently heard in Utah are the slightly lower calls of their close cousins, Bohemian Waxwings.

Bohemian Waxwings(BOWA) call, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, Audio file copyright 2007, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Source Wikimedia.org, Randen Pederson, Photographer.
Bohemian Waxwings are slightly larger than Cedar Waxwings, and a little fancier—their wing feathers include red, yellow, black, and white, and the underside of their tails is a rich cinnamon. Both species gather by the hundreds to eat berries, so you won’t miss a flock if there’s one nearby. Although waxwings are songbirds, the calls you hear don’t serve the same functions as true songs, advertising mate quality and defending territories. Instead, waxwings cooperate to find and feed on scattered fruit, their main winter diet. Unlike most birds, waxwings are able to smell, which may help them find their food. If waxwings eat berries that have begun to ferment over the winter months, they may become intoxicated even though their ability to metabolize ethanol is very high. The last time Bohemian Waxwings were abundant in Utah was during the winter of 2012-2013.

White-winged Crossbill(WWCR) call, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, Audio file copyright 2007, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved

If you look in a pine tree, you may see a flock of White-winged Crossbills. Last abundant in Utah during the winter of 2008-2009, this species of finch forages on the seeds inside of conifer cones.

White-winged Crossbill, Courtesy and Copyright Paul Higgins, www.pbase.com/phiggins/
White-winged Crossbill
Copyright © 2009 Paul Higgins
More photos at pbase.com/phiggins/
and utahbirds.org Photo Gallery
As the name crossbill suggests, the lower part of its bill is bent to the right and the upper part to the left, allowing crossbills to wedge open pinecone scales and lift the seeds free with their tongues. In the winter, crossbills forage in flocks of ten to fifty. They quickly assess the quality of a tree’s cones, using visual and vocal cues from their flockmates, which are quiet when they are eating but chatter when they are not. When the volume of the chatter increases to a crescendo, all the crossbills in the flock know that it’s time to switch to a new tree. Unlike most songbirds, crossbills can breed at any time of year, as long as conifer seeds are abundant.

When the weather gets cold, keep an eye and an ear out for these winter nomads.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Andrew Durso.

Credits:

Waxwing Images: Courtesy US FWS, David Menke, Photographer
White-winged Crossbill Image: Courtesy and Copyright © 2009 Paul Higgins, Photographer
Text: Andrew Durso, http://www.biology.usu.edu/htm/our-people/graduate-students?memberID=6753

Additional Reading:

Fitting the Bill, Andrea Liberatore, August 11, 2011, http://wildaboututah.org/fitting-the-bill/

White-winged Crossbill, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-winged_Crossbill/id

Cedar Waxwing, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cedar_Waxwing/id

Bohemian Waxwing, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bohemian_Waxwing/id

Climate Change and the Christmas Bird Count

Climate Change and the Christmast Bird Count: Bald Eagle on light post
Bald Eagle
Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Courtesy US FWS
On December 17th, I will join several others for an exciting day of counting bird species and numbers in our lovely, snowy valley. The numbers will be entered on a database that will be shared globally.

The Christmas Bird Count began on Christmas Day in the year 1900 when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an officer in the nascent Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition—a “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than slaughtering them, which had been the past ritual.

The data collected by observers over the past 116 years has allowed researchers to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space. This long-term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategists to better protect birds and their habitat and helps identify environmental issues, with implications for people as well.

Climate Change and the Christmast Bird Count: Frank M. Chapman, organizer of the first christmas bird count, Courtesy Wikimedia, Image in the public domain
Frank M. Chapman
Courtesy Wikimedia
Image in the public domain
 

Along with the fun it brings, the count has special significance for our changing climate’s impact on birds which is disrupting populations and their spatial distribution that are changing at an accelerating rate.

Audubon’s 2014 Climate Change Report is a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Of the bird species studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. The models indicate that 314 species will lose more than half of their current range by 2080.

Audubon’s Climate Initiative, the organizational response to this threat, taps into its members’ love and commitment for birds to build population resilience and demand solutions to slow the pace of warming. Audubon is encouraging its members to take steps to address the climate change threat in their backyards and communities. Visit their website at audubon.org for how to take action.

The Environmental Protection Agency has included Audubon’s climate change work from CBC data as one of 26 indicators of climate change in their 2012 report.

In 2007, CBC data were instrumental in the development of Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline Report, which revealed that some of America’s most beloved and familiar birds have taken a nosedive over the past forty years.
142 species of concern are found in Utah including our state bird, the California gull and our national bald eagle. Averaging the most recent 10 years, our valley has seen 16 species increase and 11 species decline. Of course we would need a much broader sweep to know the true story of these species, but our data may play a significant part in the overall analysis.

And please, keep those bird feeders full as we enter the coldest month of the year!

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy Wikimedia and in the public domain
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

17 Dec, Cache Valley (Logan) Christmas Bird Count, Bridgerland Audubon Society, http://bridgerlandaudubon.org/our-projects/cache-valley-christmas-bird-count/

A “no-trouts-land” on the Logan River

Cutthroat Trout A no-trouts-land on the Logan River, Copyright (c) Chadd VanZanten, Photographer vanzanten-cutthroat_trout.250x184
Cutthroat Trout
Copyright © Chadd VanZanten, Photographer
Northern Utah’s Logan River is known for its solitude and grandeur. Drive just a few miles up Logan Canyon in Cache Valley and find yourself in a wild setting on the bank of a picturesque mountain stream. It would be difficult to find a place in Utah that is more accessible and yet so peaceful.

However, just a few inches beneath the riffles of the Logan River, a war rages.

This conflict has gone unresolved for more than a century. The combatants fight continuously all day, all night, and all year.

The indigenous defender is the Bonneville cutthroat trout, which migrated here hundreds of thousands of years ago from the west coast of America by way of the Snake and Columbia rivers. They’ve been here ever since, making this Logan River cutthroat army the largest wild and natural population of its kind. Presently, cutthroats hold the upper river, above Twin Bridges or thereabouts.

Invading from downstream is the brown trout, whose antecedents hail from Eurasia. The brown trout isn’t an intentional trespasser; they were stocked here in the 1880s by humans who wanted more fish to catch. However, brown trout are aggressive, and they don’t know or care that the Logan River used to belong to some other species. Brown trout dominate the lower river, especially in the neighborhood of Third Dam.

And so they fight.

The middle portion of the river is a “no-trouts-land,” where the two species meet to wage their desperate struggle. They contend for living space, compete for forage, and, when it’s convenient, they devour each other with gusto.

Which will prevail? Each species has its advantages.

The brown trout are indisputably stronger, tougher, and meaner. They tolerate low water quality and wide swings in water temperature. When brown trout encounter cutthroats of their same size, they aggressively drive out the more-docile cutthroats. Every year, the brown trout gain a little ground, pressing inch by inch upstream.

Cutthroats may not be great fighters, but they are resilient, having survived clear-cut logging, overgrazing, and the damming of the river. The cutthroats were here first, too, so they hold the high ground, and it’s much easier for fish to move downstream than up. And the cutthroats rule the upper tributaries of the Logan River, which they use to spawn and replenish their numbers. But perhaps most importantly, the cutthroats have an immensely powerful ally: humans.

That’s right. The race that brought the brown trout here in the first place now sides with the cutthroats. The humans could easily exterminate all brown trout in Logan River, from its headwaters to the confluence of the Bear River, but that’s not what’s happening. Instead, conservation measures, such as strategically placed barriers to fish passage and fishing regulations that protect cutthroats during their spawning season, give the natives a fighting chance against their fierce invaders.

Fly anglers, too, favor the cutthroat trout, which they fondly refer to as “cutties.” Fly anglers seem averse to harvesting cutties, releasing them instead unharmed after capture. Opinions vary among experts about how much catch-and-release practices actually help the Cutthroats, but this is war, and these natives, besieged by a relentless and superior foe, can use every advantage they can get.

For Wild About Utah I’m Chadd VanZanten.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy and Copyright Chadd VanZanten, Photographer
Text:     Chadd VanZanten


Additional Reading:

The Cutthroat Trout, Anna Bengston, Wild About Utah, July 10, 2014, http://wildaboututah.org/cutthroat-trout/

Cutthroat Trout, Native trout of the interior west, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/cutthroat-home.html

Small Stream Cutthroat Trout, Matt McKell, May 10, 2016, http://wildlife.utah.gov/blog/2016/small-stream-cutthroat-trout/