World’s largest plant discovered in Australian waters
Scientists have discovered the world’s largest plant in shallow waters off the coast of Western Australia. At 20,000 hectares, the sprawling seagrass (Posidonia australis) is larger than the quaking Aspen trees in Utah, which have been referred to as the largest living plant on earth, covering 43 hectares.
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Also known as the ribbon weed, the species commonly grows along the southern coastline of Australia. This particular plant stretches over 112 miles and is located in the Shark Bay, an area protected and designated as a World Heritage site.
In a study to target species for restoration, scientists accidentally discovered that such a large area was only covered by one species. Samples were taken from a site, up to 180 km apart, and found to belong to one single plant.
“We thought ‘what the hell is going on here?’” said Dr. Martin Breed, an ecologist at Flinders University. “We were completely stumped.”
Jane Edgeloe, a student researcher at the University of Western Australia (UWA) said that over 10,000 genetic markers were examined. To their surprise, they realized that there were no genetic differences between the collected sample. This is an indication that they were dealing with one plant.
The plant had spread using rhizomes to a large extent. “The existing 200 sq km of ribbon weed meadows appear to have expanded from a single, colonizing seedling,” Edgeloe said.
With the thought that they were dealing with different species, the researchers had given different labels to the 116 samples selected. The samples were also marked with GPS coordinates to determine where each species was collected.
Ribbon weed rhizomes are among the fastest spreading rhizomes in the world, growing up to 35cm a year. Using this information, researchers behind the study say that the plant might have taken up to 45,000 years to attain its size. Moving forward, more studies have to be done to ascertain its true extent.