Largest Living Thing

aspens largest thi g


Largest Living Thing- KQED Perspective aired October 2002

Ok when I ask a group of folks “what is the largest living thing on the Planet Earth?” Invariably someone responds – the blue whale! They have just exposed a common bias. I never said largest animal. But blue whales are the biggest sentient beings to have ever lived – 100 feet long, 100 tons! That’s equal to 5 brontosauruses, 25 African Elephants or 1500 human beings!

Many of us know that the largest single tree in the world is the General Sherman- a giant sequoia that weighs 4.5 million pounds! But in 1992 two biologists in Michigan got a lot of media attention when they announced they had found the largest living thing – a fungal mat that covered 40 acres. Of course in typical competitive fashion another group soon claimed that their organ-ism was bigger. It covered 1500 acres. And several years ago an even bigger mycelia mass of 2200 acres was found in Oregon. Stop boys! While the area covered by these lowly fungi may be extensive, their weight is nowhere near that of General Sherman.

But now we know that even the giant sequoias of California can’t compete with the Quaking Aspens of the Rocky Mountains. “What!” you say, “those wimpy little trees with the nervous leaves?” Yep. Years ago I noticed that when the aspens were changing color in the fall that certain clumps of trees would be a different hue than the adjacent clump. Even though the slope exposure, the soil, the moisture would all be identical there were clear differences in the leaf color. I was perplexed. I now know that I was observing adjacent clonal groups of aspens.

Researchers in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains have found what they claim is the largest living thing in the world- a 106-acre patch of aspens, which are totally connected by the same root system. There are 47,000 tree trunks, which are genetically identical and weigh over 13 million pounds. They have named this “individual” Pando, which is Latin for “I spread.”

But before they could break out the champagne marine biologists were clamoring for their favorite candidate – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It may be that the largest living thing is a coral reef, which also consists of identical clones in a common matrix. Will it never end? This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Lassen National Volcanic Park

Lassen (KQED Perspective aired September 2003)
By Michael Ellis

Mt. Harkness Lassen Volcanic National Park

Below the surface of the earth anywhere from 15 to 60 miles deep is a very large reservoir of molten rock called magma. When this molten rock gets to the surface we then call it lava. There are four different kinds of volcanoes throughout the world that funnel this magma upward. There is a place in California from where you can see all four types. This is very rare and yet another superlative for our great state.

Seventy miles to the north from this spot is a very large volcano. This is the classic Mt. Fuji type called a composite or strato-volcano. These occur where an ocean seafloor plunges underneath a continental land mass and the seafloor is melted into a huge pool of magma which then rises. These volcanoes are famous for cataclysmic eruptions because they contain large quantities of gases and high concentrations of explosive silica. This one last erupted in the 1790’s.

In the foreground about five miles away is the classic cinder cone or tephra volcano. These are probably the most common type. They are often not the main vent but parasitic cones. Their explosions are usually violent and they are composed of lava thrown into the air and cooled into ash, obsidian and/or cinders.

To the west is the world’s largest volcanic plug dome. This one rises over 10000′ above sea level and was formed by pasty lava so thick that it could essentially not flow and plugged the neck of volcano.

And finally this mystery spot itself is a mountain composed of nothing but basalt. This very runny lava usually is found in spreading ocean sea floor bottoms or in so-called hot spots like the kind that form Hawaii and the Galapagos. This lava tends to flow smoothly and quietly and forms volcanoes that have a very rounded top hence the name shield volcanoes.

So where is this location? This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Local Theater

KQED Perspective aired Dec. 29, 2000

NEW YEARS RESOLUTION- Support Local Theater

By Michael Ellis

January is considered the first month of the year simply because Julius Caesar said so in 46 BC. Janus, the two-faced deity the month was named after, was believed to look simultaneously at the past and toward the future. So that is what we are supposed to do – reflect on the previous year and resolve to change things in the upcoming one.

And in case you don’t have enough of your own resolutions I have another for you.

Support your local theater company. There are many of them in the Bay Area – Shotgun Theater in Berkeley, the City Light Theater in San Jose, the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley and my local one is Actors Theater of Santa Rosa. They are such a gift to the community. They consist of your friends and neighbors involved in a labor of love. Believe me no one is in it for the money, there isn’t any. Local productions are convenient and inexpensive. They are intimate. They take chances and push against the edges. They do fail sometimes but they mostly they succeed grandly. Buy a season ticket, take your friends, introduce children and young people to live performance. It is much better than TV – real, not virtual.

I recently saw Actors Theater do Tony Kushners Angels in America . It was ten minutes from my house, no problem parking, a third row seat, superb acting in an excellent script. Three nights later I am at the hottest theater production in America – Sam Shepherds the Late Henry Moss staring those bad boys – Sean Penn, Nick Notle, and Woody Harrelson. Tickets are being scalped at 300 bucks. Travel time from home is 2 hours in heavy traffic, parking $15, I’m sitting in far off balcony seats, and after 3 hours of screaming alcoholics and Nolte crawling around on the stage, I have a headache and am thinking that Sam Shepherd really should be over his miserable childhood by now. What was all the hype about? I began to long for my hometown theater group.

So next year buy a season ticket to yours, you’ll be glad you did. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.



By Michael Ellis

Every time I’ m on a safari in Africa there are a couple of questions that always arise. As we are looking across the vast plain of the Serengeti, a scene that looks much like eastern Wyoming but for the thousands of wildebeests, gazelles, and zebras, someone invariably asks, – “How come we don’t have this many animals in the U.S.?” The answer is – we used to. 150 years ago there were 50 million buffaloes in the middle part of our continent. In the desire to wipe the Plains Indians right off the map, the US government reduced that large biomass of animals to about 600 individuals. 50 Million to 600. Whatta waste.

The next question is more complicated. After seeing enormous elephants, 18′ tall giraffes, huge hippos, and towering ostriches, people wonder why North America doesn’t have such large animals. Well, I say, we used to and it wasn’t really that long ago.

18,000 years ago during the last Ice Age mastodons and mammoths weighing 13 tons and roamed the Arctic Steppe. Everything was big here, perhaps as an adaptation against the cold. There were giant peccaries, giant armadillos, giant beavers, giant capybaras, giant sloths and giant long horned bison. And the predators were also large – saber toothed tigers, the American lion – much bigger than its African cousin, the dire wolf and probably the fiercest predator to roam the earth since T. rex- the short faced bear. 1500 pounds of pure carnivore terror. Lest we forget the birds there was even a raptor with a wingspan of 16 feet!

So what happened to all these fantastic animals? In a word – humans. As the Ice Age ended a land bridge formed and allowed our ancestors to cross from Asia into a world that had not known fear of humans. Within a very short period of time every single animal that weighed more than 220 lbs. – horses, camels, sloths, mastodons- in all 30 genera were killed off..

But in Africa where humans originated and have lived for several million years, the large animals evolved defenses against us. So that is why Africa has elephants and we don’t.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve (KQED Perspective aired April 2004)
By Michael Ellis

I began going to the so-called Lonesome Triangle in the late 1970’s. This remote part of the Mojave is bounded on the south by I-40 and on the north by I 15 and in between is some of the most beautiful desert country anywhere in the world.

It was managed by the BLM and under their aegis there was grazing, hunting, off road use and large scale mining. In the 1980’s it became a battleground between those of us who recognized its biological, cultural and scenic value and realized that it had National Park status and those who wanted to continue to use it (abuse it, we believed) in the same manner as the previous century. I wrote many letters to elected representatives and encouraged the people I took there on nature trips to do the same.

Finally we had two senators- Boxer and Feinstein – and Representative George Miller who were instrumental in passing the legislation. It is not a Park in the usual sense because of all the compromises that had to be made with special interest groups- hunters, for example. And large areas were excluded due to political pressure from mining interests. And Congress had to deal with us pesky environmentalists. But we finally won 1.6 million acres of desert paradise.

To be honest I enjoyed the freedom that the BLM allowed. We could camp almost anywhere. The roads were rough so it kept many folks away, there were no services, water was hard to come by, the sights were mostly unsigned…basically even at its most crowded at Easter there was no one there- a naturalists paradise!!!

So it was with some trepidation that I revisited the area last month after an absence of 9 yrs. I am pleased to say that the NPS has done an outstanding job of protecting the essential facets that make the eastern Mojave so special. They have not paved any roads. They have kept signage to a minimum. You have to know which road goes to the volcanic fields so this allows the joy of discovery. Most of the cattle are gone and there are still no services. During my visit over Easter there weren’t many visitors, the Park has kept a liberal but wise camping policy and I am delighted to say the wildflowers, bird and reptile sightings were superb. Thanks to the Department of Interior for a job well done.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.