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The World’s Largest Living Organism

Think of the largest organism you know. Its possible that the first thing that comes to mind is a blue whale, ranking in at about 100ft in length and weighing around 200+ tons – not in the least due to numerous depictions that properly scale its size for you (or, if your childhood was anything like mine, many watchings of Free Willy – who wasn’t a blue whale, but still.)  You may have also thought of Diplodocus, the famously long-necked dinosaur that was reputed to be 110ft in length and about 125 tons. Thinking about them readily heralds a certain notion of ‘there is literally nothing that could grow bigger than this and live for as long.’ And who could blame you?

 

Well, a team of forestry scientists in eastern Oregon could: in 1998, a fungus was discovered in Oregon’s Blue Mountains that measures a monstrous 2,384 acres – enough to cover about 1,665 football fields (or about 10 square kilometers.) To put this in perspective, there are precisely 43,560 square feet in a single acre. That’s a lot of blue whales – literally, like, HUNDREDS of blue whales.

Furthermore, its size does not come without a rather long history of growing as well:  the giant Armillaria ostoyae is estimated to be about 2,400 years old, but could stretch back as much 8,650 years.

 

This longevity is not to be taken for granted, however:  it is noted that the combination of the fungi’s favorable genes and a stable environment to prosper in has produced the ideal circumstances for what seems to be an almost immortal organism.  Perhaps the mythos surrounding A. ostoyae is enough to perpetuate interest in not only the species but the study of mushrooms as a whole as – or as Tom Volk, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, notes: “Well, it’s certainly the biggest publicity that mycology is going to get maybe ever.”

 

A more in-depth analysis of this historic discovery can be found in Scientific American’s article, published six years ago next month.