Biology students learn the importance of conservation from The World’s Oldest Living Things

William Woods Undergraduate

Aside from the health of our planet and the living things that dwell within, there are some breathtakingly glorious things that occur when we practice careful conservation and when we pay attention to preserving the beauty of life here on this planet.

In a TED Talk, artist and photographer Rachel Sussman shares a project she had been working on for over a decade, surveying and photographing the world’s oldest living things — what she referred to as “exploring the living past in the fleeting present”. She published a book on her works back in 2014 titled The Oldest Living Things in the World.

Sussman spent years traveling around the world to some of the most remote places, working with biology experts and photographing living things that were no younger than 2,000 years. Some of these were found on the other side of the world — some right here in our own backyard, a mere three states away.

In the Fishlake National Forest of Utah lives what is said to be an 80,000-year-old grove of quaking aspen trees called Pando — otherwise referred to as The Trembling Giant. Though it’s exact age is still debated by many, it is without question that Pando is one of the world’s oldest living treasures.

This 107-acre, 6,615 ton mass that appears to be a full forest, is in fact one single organism, all connected by the same root system, making it also one of the largest living organisms on earth. Each of the 47,000 “trees” which are actually stems from one massive, single clone are genetically identical to one another.

Other “world’s oldest living organisms” Sussman photographed include a 3,000-year-old map lichen in Greenland, 5,500-year-old moss on Elephant Island in Antarctica, 13,000-year-old Eucalyptus in Australia, and many others.

The ability to continue celebrating these ancient-natural wonders comes with conservation; the ability to conserve comes with awareness of their existence and standing.

“The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of our past, a call to action in the present and a barometer of our future,” Sussman shared in the closing of her TED talk. “They’ve survived for millennia in desert, in the permafrost, at the tops of mountains and at the bottom of the ocean. They’ve withstood untold natural perils and human encroachments, but now some of them are in jeopardy, and they can’t just get up and get out of the way.”

Many who study biology across the country go on to pursue careers in the conservation and environmental fields as conservation scientists, environmental specialists, forest ecologists or other positions. The Society for Conservation Biology offers the opportunity to learn more about these positions, seek career advice and even peruse possible internship openings.

Bachelors in biology students interested in learning more about living organisms in general and their interaction with each other and their environment can take William Woods’ course, BIO 330: Ecology. This course combines the fields of natural history, forestry, agriculture, wildlife ecology and taxonomy.

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