Sunday, June 25, 2006

Harriet the Tortise Dies

Harriet was a tortoise rumored, probably incorrectly, to have been kidnapped by Charles Darwin in the 1830's and brought to Britain. Harriet died in a zoo in Australia this week, after reaching 176 years of age. You may have seen Harriet on The Crocodile Hunter show.

Most people assume that humans have some of the largest lifespans, and when people think of the largest living organism, they usually think of blue whales. However, if you include the plant kingdom, some really fascinating facts can arise.

The trembling aspen tree is considered by some botanists to be the world's largest living organism. This tree has male and female specimens, and can reproduce sexually as wind blows the pollen from a male to a female tree. However, aspen trees can also reproduce through cloning, a process by which the roots of an existing tree spread through the ground and "sucker," which means that they break through the surface and grow up to become new trees. I think it is proper to call it a "new" tree because a tree probably refers to a plant with a single trunk, separated from other trees by soil at the surface. However, technically, the separate aspen trees share the same root mass, and therefore are the same organism. There is one specific aspen stand outside Salt Lake City, Utah, which covers about 43 hectares in size, and has about 47,000 stems arising from it. A single stem may die (lifespan of about 150-200 years) but the organism will remain alive for centuries until some sort of natural disaster wipes out the entire organism.

Another plant which is very large and very old is a species that lives in the ocean: Posidonia Oceania. This is a sort of grass-like plant that covers the seabeds in some parts of the Mediterranean, including around the island of Ibiza. Apparently, scientists have found a single strand of this plant which measures eight kilometers in length, and is believed to be over 100,000 years old. This plant contributes to the ecosystems somehow and enhances the beach-building process, which is one reason why Ibiza and nearby islands have such nice beaches.

Anyway, RIP to Harriet the Tortise.