The Largest Living Thing on Earth

Bar Room Banter
The Largest Living Thing on Earth

There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, mix yourself a glass of LMNT Recharge, and take notes as we look at the biggest living things on Earth. Powered by LMNT.

Many hunters and anglers are preoccupied by biggest and best. Most massive antlers, most inches on a fish, the heaviest haul from the morel patch. But our quarry pale in comparison to the biggest beings on the planet—although some of them are edible.

What exactly is the largest living organism is the subject of some debate. There’s the largest animal—the blue whale—weighing up to an estimated 330,000 pounds and taping out beyond 80 feet in length. There’s the biggest tree—a giant sequoia in California named General Sherman that’s 275 feet tall with a 25-foot circumference. It really depends on how you’re measuring. But, while folks may argue the semantics of “biggest,” it’s clear that America wins no matter what.

With fish and game, we either measure in linear distance or weight—inches of antler, pounds of bass. So, since we can’t tape them or put them on a scale, likely the two best measures for the largest living organism are area, the square acreage or mileage the organism covers, or biomass, a volume measurement. By either measure, the biggest ones are found on National Forest ground in the Western United States.

A colony of honey mushroom in Oregon is the largest living thing on Earth by area and likely weight. This interconnected Armillaria ostoyae web, known colloquially as the “humongous fungus,” covers 3.7 square miles of the Malheur National Forest in the northeast corner of the state. It’s thought be around 2,400 years old and weigh in the neighborhood of 70 million pounds. While the individual fruiting bodies (which are edible when cooked properly) may seem separate, they are connected by miles of mycelium underground, making it one single organism. The pathogenic fungus can also travel below the bark of living trees and cause them to die, making it of particular interest to forest managers.

Spencer Neuharth, MeatEater’s resident mycology dork, has dabbled in the consumption of this world’s largest-growing organism and provided some tasting notes: “Some foragers think of honey mushrooms as slimy and unappetizing, but they still make for good table fare. Although you won’t eat them as a standalone mushroom like morels or chanterelles, they are nice compliments to meats and vegetables.”

However, if you’d rather judge the world’s largest life form by biomass instead, you’d just need to drive about 12 hours to the southeast from the humongous fungus to south-central Utah. There, in the Fishlake National Forest, you’d find the Pando Quaking Aspen Grove—some 40,000 aspen stems emerging from a mutual root system.

The Pando Tree, as it’s known, only covers a measly 108 acres, 4% of Oregon’s giant mushroom cluster. But the root system and tall tree trunks—determined through genetic testing to be one just one single male plant—fill so much volume that the grove is widely considered to be the most massive living thing on the planet. Researchers estimate this tree has been growing for more than 10,000 years and would likely weigh more than 13 million pounds, if you could get such a thing on a scale. The inner bark of aspen is edible raw or cooked and often made into flour. But elk and moose probably like eating it a lot more than we do.

Now go forth and trot out this trivia next time you’re at the bar trying to sound smart. And, if some other smartypants challenges you on whether you mean largest by area or largest by mass, you can just say that both are in America. The conservation of large, intact ecosystems is as good a reason as any to be proud of our country.

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