What aspen trees have in common with the clone wars (seriously)

The huge stands of aspen on Kebler Pass are impressive to see in the fall, but it is their way of reproducing that has led some to believe they could be the largest organism in the world.

KUSA - If there ever was a movie shot on Kebler Pass near Crested Butte, Dr. Jonathan Coop from Western State Colorado University might have the perfect name for it.

“It’s 'Clone Wars,'” said Dr. Coop, who is an associate professor of environment and sustainability and biology.

Dr. Coop studies the aspens on the pass, and said these are not clones to be nervous around—they are clones that are making Colorado falls colorful.

“One of the many cool attributes of their biology is that they can grow clonally and reproduce clonally,” Dr. Coop said. “They’ll have a root system that’ll sprout off what we call sucker shoots that’ll grow into the trees, and they can keep working across the landscape expanding out from this root system.”

The huge stands of aspen on Kebler Pass are impressive to see in the fall, but it is their way of reproducing that has led some to believe they could be the largest organism in the world. Right now, that honor goes to an aspen patch in Utah, or a fungus in Oregon—depending who you talk to.

“Is there a possibility the biggest organism on earth is out here—absolutely there’s a possibility,” Dr. Coop said.

Even if they are not the biggest, Dr. Coop said the aspen groves on Kebler Pass are worth protecting. He said he has seen heath issues and death of trees due to climate change.

“We’re seeing a lot of forest health issues that are pretty closely linked to temperature and drought,” Dr. Coop said.

Dr. Coop said that many of the aspens on Kebler pass got their start in the 1800s. He said research has shown there are fewer trees now than there were 50 years ago, which is part of the reason why he continues to study forest health.

“Based on the best science that we have as far as what the future holds, what we’re seeing right now is just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Coop said.

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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