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The World’s Largest Plant Stretching 77 Square Miles Found in Australia

largest plant seagrass
The world’s largest plant is a seagrass discovered in Australia. Credit: Milorad Mikota,  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0/Wikipedia

The largest known plant on Earth—a seagrass that covers about 200 sq km (77 sq miles)— has been discovered off the coast of Australia.

Using genetic testing, scientists have determined a large underwater meadow in Western Australia is in fact one plant.

It is believed to have spread from a single seed over at least 4,500 years.

The team coincidentally stumbled upon the discovery at Shark Bay, located about 800km north of Perth.

They had set out to understand the genetic diversity of the species—also known as ribbon weed—which is commonly found along parts of Australia’s coast.

Researchers collected shoots from across the bay and examined 18,000 genetic markers to create a “fingerprint” from each sample. They had aimed to discover how many plants made up the meadow.

“The answer blew us away—there was just one!” said Jane Edgeloe, the study’s lead author. “That’s it, just one plant has expanded over 180km in Shark Bay, making it the largest known plant on Earth.”

Seagrass remarkable for its hardiness

The plant is also remarkable for its hardiness, having grown in locations across the bay with wildly variable conditions.

“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,” said Dr Elizabeth Sinclair, one of the researchers.

Writing in The Conversation, Sinclair says that the sandy dunes of Shark Bay flooded some 8,500 years ago when the sea level rose after the last ice age.

Over the following millennia, the expanding seagrass meadows made shallow coastal banks and sills through creating and capturing sediment, which made the water saltier.

The world’s largest plant grows at a rate of up to 35cm a year

There is also a lot of light in the waters of Shark Bay, as well as low levels of nutrients and large temperature fluctuations. Despite this hostile environment, the plant has been able to thrive and adapt.

The species generally grows like a lawn at a rate of up to 35cm a year. This is how researchers estimated it has taken 4,500 years to sprawl to its current size.

“Other huge plants have been reported in both marine and land systems, such as 6,000-[ton] quaking aspen in Utah, but this seagrass appears to be the largest to date,” Sinclair notes.

She adds that other huge seagrass plants have also been found, including a closely related Mediterranean seagrass called Posidonia oceanica, which covers more than 15 km and maybe around 100,000 years old.

The research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Related: Seagrasses Could Hold Secret to Averting Climate Change

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