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The Scrivener: Priorities

What is the largest living thing in the world?

Brian Barratt brings the answer in this highly entertaining column.

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The fairies have not been bringing their white-spotted bright red toadstools. They usually pop up overnight around the base of the silver birch, and sometimes near the grevillea and banksia in the front garden. But not for the past two or three years. The truth is that we've had drought conditions for several years. The pretty but poisonous Fly Agaric have not had enough rain and moisture to encourage them to emerge. We can't blame the fairies.

There's more to mushrooms (sometimes called toadstools) than meets the eye. What we see sprouting up from the earth are merely the "fruit" of an underground parasitic network of rhizomorphs, hairlike threads. Some of them like feeding on the roots of silver birch trees. The subterranean network can spread over quite a large area.

One such network of rhizomorphs was explored in an American forest. The Independent (August 6 2000) reported that scientists had found that it spread over an area of 880 hectares (2,200 acres), forming an underground mass about 5.5 km across. DNA testing was used to confirm that it was one single body. It was declared to be the the world's biggest living thing.
"Oregon's monster mushroom is world's biggest living thing." That makes an impressive headline. A touch of sensationalism, perhaps. We seem to be keen on the biggest, tallest, fastest of many things, don't we? Different sets of statistics and figures are produced by different countries which claim to have the biggest of something. Take waterfalls, of example.

Mosi-oa-Tunya, Victoria Falls, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, can be said to be the largest. Not the widest, not the deepest, but taking into account the flow of water, the largest. Manipulation of statistics might prove Niagara to be the largest in some way but it is certainly not as spectacular as Victoria Falls. But the Angel Falls in Venezuela are the highest, at 979 metres. And so the argument goes on.

Human-made structures also compete to be the largest or the tallest. At present, we have the curious other-worldly phenomenon of Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. It has 162 storeys in its 828 metres. That's nearly as tall as the Angel Falls are deep.

For a few years, Rialto Towers was the tallest building in Australia, at 251 metres high. That honour (?) now goes to something called Q1, on the Gold Coast of Queensland, which is 323 metres tall and is, or was, the tallest residential building in the world. Using different criteria, Eureka Tower in Melbourne, with 91 storeys, also claimed to be the tallest residential building in the world until it was overtaken. And so it goes on. Ho hum.

I've been to Victoria Falls twice, in 1953 and 1967, and know why the local people call it Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders. It is stunning in every way. If the word had not lost its meaning through over-use by kids, I would say it is awesome. Look it up in the dictionary to see what that really means.

I've also been up Rialto Towers a few times but I suffered from a bit of vertigo in an Education Department office high above the ground. The glass windows are floor-to-ceiling. Never mind the view; I just felt woozy.

Meanwhile, I wonder what the rhizomorphs beneath my front lawn are doing? Will we have enough rain for them to be stimulated to push some bright red fairy mushrooms up through the ground beneath the silver birch? I'd rather see that again than peer up at the giddy height of Burj Khalifa.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2010


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