Researchers have apparently discovered the largest plant in the world – a meadow of seagrass off the coast of Western Australia that covers a total of 200 km2 (77 miles2).
Scientists from the University of Western Australia and Flinders University started studying the genetic diversity of seagrass meadows in the Shark Bay area. The team took samples of shoots from several different environments, then examined 18,000 genetic markers to create profiles of the plants.
“The answer blew us away – there was just one!” said Jane Edgeloe, lead author of the study. “That’s it, just one plant has expanded over 180 km (112 miles) in Shark Bay, making it the largest known plant on Earth. The existing 200 km2 of ribbon weed meadows appear to have expanded from a single, colonizing seedling.”
Earlier, this title was held by an aspen tree in Utah nicknamed Pando, which has cloned itself into a similar colony connected by one root system. Pando covers just 0.4 km2 (0.2 miles2). This means that the seagrass is more than 400 times more expansive.
The team calculated its age to be at least 4,500 years and uncovered how it’s managed to keep up with environmental change despite its lack of genetic diversity. It’s a polyploid plant, meaning it contains the two full genomes from its parent plants, rather than half-and-half.
“Polyploid plants often reside in places with extreme environmental conditions, are often sterile, but can continue to grow if left undisturbed, and this giant seagrass has done just that,” said Dr. Elizabeth Sinclair, senior author of the study. “Even without successful flowering and seed production, it appears to be really resilient, experiencing a wide range of temperatures and salinities plus extreme high light conditions, which together would typically be highly stressful for most plants.”
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.