Explore a ‘trembling giant’ from home; Friends of Pando release 360 degree photographic data

ST. GEORGE — Armed with a mission, researchers, volunteers and citizen scientists navigated a trembling giant’s rough terrain, toting high-tech camera equipment and collecting data. Recently, Friends of Pando released the first of many data sets from the survey, allowing individuals from across the globe to study and experience one of the world’s largest organisms — Pando — from the comfort of their living rooms.

This file photo features a view of Pando’s canopy from below, Fish Lake, Utah, Aug. 5, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Beginning in August 2021, Friends of Pando, a nonprofit located in Richfield, undertook a “first-of-its-kind” 360-degree photographic survey of Pando over the tree’s 106-acre land mass in collaboration with Fishlake National Forest and Snow College in Richfield.

Lance Oditt, Friends of Pando’s executive director, told St. George News the data could be used by scientists and land managers to better understand the clone and monitor its health over time.

“Our mission is to educate the public, support research (and) preservation efforts and inspire stewardship of Pando,” he said.

Located in the Fishlake National Forest, Pando is the largest recorded tree by weight and land mass, according to a news release issued by the nonprofit.

As a quaking aspen, the tree gained the moniker “Trembling Giant” due to the species’ leaves, which flutter noisily against a light breeze.

This file photo is a 360 image of the entire photographic survey team, seen here projected as a flat photo, Fish Lake, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Lance Oditt, St. George News

Despite its massive size, weighing an estimated 13 million pounds and consisting of over 40,000 trees, Pando is a single organism, according to the Forest Service. The tree, the largest known aspen clone, was germinated from a single seed. It regenerates via “suckering,” where it sends up new shoots, or saplings, from its root system. Pando means “I spread” in Latin.

The tree, first observed in 1976, is thousands of years old and boasts an estimated 47,000 branches, the release states. “Little is known about the workings of the tree,” and the survey will mark the first time the organism has been inventoried.

“As any gardener knows, if you want to see your garden grow and be healthy, you must understand soil, light, water needs and how to deal with disease and pests,” Oditt said in the release. “To date, nearly all the research has been about pests. This record provides a way for scientists to study the vital workings of the tree immersively, year-round, from anywhere in the world.”

Primarily dominated by isolated mature stems, like those seen in this file photo, some areas within Pando’s sprawl show few signs of regeneration, Fishlake National Forest, Utah, Aug. 5, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

The nonprofit’s initial goal was to photograph the tree in a calendar year, Oditt said. While they could have used the data they collected in the first year, they “didn’t feel good about” it, and Oditt said they continued work into 2022. Ultimately, 39 individuals contributed over 2,100 human hours to the project.

Despite logistical obstacles, including COVID-19, gas prices and inclement weather, Oditt said the group had many “profound experiences” in the tree and he was “really proud no one got hurt.”

Group members navigated remote, rough terrain while carrying camera equipment at an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet and faced new challenges daily, Oditt said.

“This was created by people who share their whole lives with Pando,” he said in the release. “One team member took their engagement picture in the tree. We hope the record reflects that sort of hopefulness and long-term thinking.”

Additionally, the project gave participating students the opportunity “to engage in recording a lasting record of something in their backyard,” Chief Scientist Ryan Thalman, who teaches chemistry and natural sciences at Snow College, said in the release.

Wilson Thorpe, pictured here cleaning one of the lens of the 360 camera, traveled thousands of miles from his native New York to help with the survey, Fishlake, Utah, Aug. 5, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

The project concluded in September 2022. The first data sets were recently released, and more are expected throughout 2023. Over 8,000 locations were documented in the tree. Friends of Pando is still processing the landmass data with 57% — equal to approximately 20 acres –of the total 1.7 terabytes reviewed for processing, Oditt said. Approximately 20% has been published to date.

Users can experience the clone themselves on the Friends of Pando website, where they can choose to learn about and explore various routes through the tree.

The first route, titled “First Connections: A Walk Around the World’s Largest Tree, Pando,” which is described as a “curated walking tour,” can be found below.

To begin, press play. Look around by dragging the image with a cursor and click on the blue arrow to navigate the area. Click on the images at the bottom to change locations. Instructions for mobile and virtual reality headset users can be found here.

Scientific research

An image showing the size and location of Pando, Fishlake National Forest, date not specified | Image courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

The nonprofit’s initial release is focused on scientific research, so the data is publicly available and replicable. Oditt said he hopes the Forest Service and other scientists can use it for long-term monitoring and study of the tree. For instance, the data could be used to create a model for when and how often Pando regenerates.

Researchers could also gain insight into the clone’s physiological data and topics, including disease, ground cover and light penetration, the release states.

The project’s plot map has been used for field research planning. And scientists can utilize the data as provided or “mix-and-match recorded locations to design areas of interest,” according to the release.

Additionally, the nonprofit believes the record has “enormous potential in science education and promoting shared understanding,” the release states.

For instance, some research has indicated that the “trembling giant” is declining due to various factors, including climate change, drought and herbivores, particularly deer, feasting on saplings’ leaves, St. George News reported. Oditt disagrees with this assessment, saying there is insufficient data to conclude that Pando is dying.

Paul Rogers, president of the Western Aspen Alliance, said mule deer likely pose the greatest threat to Pando in the short term, Fishlake National Forest, Utah, Aug. 5, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

“There is room for a lot of confusion,” he said in the release. “Now, people can see for themselves, and scientists have a new way to study and communicate about the tree.”

Friends of Pando will continue to release photographic survey data as it is processed, according to its 2022 Annual Report.

Additionally, the nonprofit plans to complete several visual and auditory experiences, including an audio guide, mini-documentaries and featurettes, and an “immersive 360-degree film” under the working title “Pando: The World’s Tree.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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