Listening to the largest tree on Earth #ASA18


Image: The Pando aspen grove in south-central Utah after a thunderstorm.
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Credit: Jeff Rice. Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

CHICAGO, May 10, 2023 — Spanning 106 acres in south-central Utah, the Pando aspen grove resembles a forest but is actually a single organism with more than 47,000 genetically identical aspen stems connected at the root. Pando is the largest tree in the world by weight and landmass. Research suggests that Pando has been regenerating for 9,000 years, making it one of the oldest organisms on Earth.

As part of the 184th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, Jeff Rice and Lance Oditt will describe their work to unveil a unique acoustic portrait of this botanical wonder. Her presentation “Under the Tree: The Sounds of a Trembling Giant” will be held on Wednesday, May 10 at 10:30 am in the Eastern US in the Great America 1/2 room as part of the May 8-12 meeting at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile Hotel.

“Pando challenges our fundamental understanding of the world,” said host Jeff Rice, a Seattle-based sound artist. “The notion that this vast forest could be a single organism contradicts our notion of the individual. Its width humbles our sense of space.”

After charting Pando’s leaves for The New York Times Magazine’s 2018 “Listen to the World” special, Rice returned in July 2022 as artist-in-residence for the non-profit group Friends of Pando, which Oditt founded in 2019 of microphones to record Pando’s leaves, birds and weather.

“The sounds are beautiful and interesting, but from a practical standpoint, natural sounds can be used to document the health of an environment,” he said. “They are a record of local biodiversity and provide a baseline that can be measured against environmental changes.”

Rice was particularly fascinated by the vibrations going through the tree during a storm. He wanted to see if they could record the sound of Pando’s root system, which can reportedly reach to a depth of 90 feet. Oditt, managing director of Friends of Pando, identified several potential shooting locations below the surface.

“Hydrophones don’t just need water to function,” Rice said. “They can also pick up vibrations from surfaces like roots, and when I put my headphones on I was immediately surprised. Something happened. There was a faint noise.”

This sound is not clearly coming from Pando’s root system. But a handful of experiments support the idea. Rice and Oditt were able to show that vibrations can be transmitted through the soil from tree to tree. As they tapped a branch 90 feet away, the hydrophone picked up a soft tap. Rice compares this to the classic tin can telephone.

“It’s like two cans connected by a string,” he said. “But there are 47,000 cans connected by a huge root system.”

A similar phenomenon occurred during a thunderstorm. The stronger the leaves moved in the wind, the stronger the signal recorded by the hydrophone became.

“The results are tempting. While it started out as art, we see tremendous potential for exploitation in science. Wind, converted to vibration (sound) and moving through the root system, could also non-destructively reveal the inner workings of Pando’s vast hidden hydraulic system,” Oditt said. “Friends of Pando plans to use the collected data as a basis for further studies on water movement, the relationship between branch rows, insect colonies and root depth, all of which we know little about today.”



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