Useless Information

Normally, I write columns based either on whatever has been running through my pointy little head or whatever I’ve been researching lately.  At the moment, in the first category is a solidly vacuous “Duh.”  I’ve been going through one of those brainless periods.

In the second, currently you find Chinese bronzes and historic pestilences.  Both worthy topics, I suppose, but difficult to write about lightly and just about impossible to cover in 800 words.

So instead, I thought I’d write about something really fascinating: Aspens.

No, I’m not kidding.

If you’ve ever gone hiking up in the mountains, you’ve probably come across groves of the populus tremuloides or Quaking Aspens.  Aside from being beautiful, these aspens have two bizarre traits.

The first, and most obvious, is that they quake.

Most trees, when the wind blows, have all their leaves simply bent away from the wind.  Depending on the angle the wind hits, they may blow up or down, but they all blow together.  That’s because their leaf stems are strong structures that resist the push of the wind in a nice symmetrical way.

Not so the aspen.  The stem that holds the aspen leaf is quite thin and flat.  If has virtually no  rotational stiffness.  So when the wind blows each leaf goes its own way.  Some blow up, some down.  As the air currents change, so do the leaves: up and down, now down and up.  In the right light, the whole grove seems to sparkle.

Parenthetically, scientists have offered lots of theories why evolution would have led the aspen to its flat, unstable stems.  On the notion that natural selection would only have kept such an odd trait if it benefitted the plant, people have suggested it somehow aids photosynthesis, transpiration, etc.  Truth is, nobody knows.

But it is the second trait of the aspen family that is truly bizarre.

Imagine that you walk up to a nice, sparkling grove of aspens.  It might be anything up to around a hundred acres in size.  The trees are not crowded in upon each other, but keep an oddly polite distance apart.  The trunks have a light bark with dark horizontal lines and knots.  The leaves are a lovely green except in the fall, when they turn a brilliant yellow.  In the spring the hanging catkins (flowers) come out before the leaves do.

So you can just stand there and enjoy the sight of the sheer fecund variety of all those trees in one spot.  Right?

Actually, no.

You see, what you are looking at isn’t really a grove of separate trees at all.  It is really a single, giant organism.  It’s called a clonal colony.

In an aspen grove, the first tree (born from those catkin seeds) sends out a spread of roots.  Some feet away from the parent stem a sucker grows upward, forming another tree.  With the nourishment and photosynthesis of the new tree, the roots can spread further out, whereupon a new sucker appears and a new tree starts.  Aspen are pretty sensitive as to their environment, but the process goes on until every suitable acre is filled with aspens.  Typically, every single “tree” in a grove is a clone of the original tree.

The trees can live quite a while, anything from 40 – 150 years.  Then they die.  But the root structure doesn’t.  It simply replaces the dead tree with another sucker and goes on.  There is a famous grove in Utah called Pando, 110 acres in size, with 47,000 trees.  Estimates vary, but it could weigh 6,600 tons and be as much as 80,000 years old.  While that might make Pando the heaviest organism on the planet, it may not be the oldest nor even the largest.

In 2006 a huge clonal colony of posidonia oceanica, a giant seagrass, was discovered near the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. At 8 km across and possibly up to 100,000 years of age, it may be one of the largest and oldest clonal colonies on Earth.

Cool, huh?

As the infomercials say, but wait, there’s more!

Not because it is relevant to anything in particular but merely because I found them in the course of researching clonal colonies, did you know that the biggest salamander, the Chinese Giant, can be a slimy 6 feet long and weigh 140 pounds?

Or that the beluga sturgeon has been recorded at 24 feet long and almost 3,250 pounds?

Or that the longest tapeworm ever recorded in a human was 66 feet long (Yuch!)?

Or that a honey fungus colony in eastern Oregon is estimated to be 2200 acres in size?

Or that the largest bacterium, thiomargarita namibiensis, is so big it can be seen with the naked eye?

There’s lots more, but here is the point: I think so long as you can still get a thrill from finding some completely useless piece of information, you’re still young.

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