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Outside Online Archives

Outside magazine, August 1997

By Elizabeth Royte

What is the largest living organism?
Isabel Garcia, Monte Rio, California

Let's begin with the weakest among the oft-cited claimants to the throne: Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Promoters of Aussie tourism have brazenly lobbied for the GBR for years, pointing out that it expands for 100,000 square miles and supports more than 16,000 species. This is all well and good, but it's beside the point. Anyone who's ever put on snorkel and fins will instantly dismiss a reef as a community of organisms, not a single one. So let's move on from pretenders to legitimate contenders: Whale lovers will exalt their great blue, undoubtedly the largest animal on earth, with an average adult length of about 90 feet and a weight of more than 150 tons. But don't talk about blue whales to the folks over at California's Sequoia National Park. "The blue whale isn't even close to our General Sherman tree," insists a spokeswoman for the park. At last count, the General was 275 feet tall, and its trunk had a volume of 52,500 cubic feet — room enough to fit 11 blue whales. Sadly, General Sherman's supremacy took a hit in the midseventies, when mycologists isolated a colony of Armillaria ostoyae, a common fungus, whose millions of interconnecting tendrils extend over 1,500 acres in Klickitat County, Washington. This jumbo fungus enjoyed the title until 1992, when a group of biologists announced that a 106-acre stand of aspens in Utah was actually 47,000 trees connected by a single root system. Area-wise, the fungus still rules; mass-wise, the aspen grove has both the fungus and the giant sequoia beat. General Sherman has been duly demoted from "largest living thing" to "largest living tree." The Australian Tourist Board, however, has yet to amend its Web page.

What's the world-record time aloft in a hang-glider?
Kirsten Rolfs, Dover, Delaware

In June 1986, American James Will stayed airborne for an incredible 34 hours and three minutes over Oahu's Makapuu Point, a favored ridge that enjoys ideal "lift" conditions thanks to the stout trade winds. "The spirits were with me," Will boasts. "I did transcendental meditation up there — and when I had to go, I just peed into the wind." Will's record won't likely be broken on American soil, now that the FAA has banned playing Icarus in the dark. The U.S. Hang Gliding Association no longer even recognizes the duration category. Besides, distance is the sport's true grail. In 1994, American Larry Tudor set the current world distance record, 307.7 miles, stringing together a patchwork of thermals between Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Stoneham, Colorado. It took him eight hours to do the deed — but who's counting?

Do spiders ever get caught in their own webs?
Jim Mann, Ames, Iowa

They do, in fact, but they're pretty good at extricating themselves. Unlike their prey, they don't deepen their

entanglement by panicking, and it's suspected that they may spit web-dissolving enzymes. Then too, their hard, chitinous claws are snag-resistant, unlike, say, the scales on a moth's wings or the setae on a fly's legs. Mind you, not all spider silk is sticky. Some spiders have different glands for different types of silk; only the patient mastermind behind the intricate cobweb knows which of her strands are tacky and which aren't. Weavers of orb webs restrict their perambulations to the radii, which are always smooth. And because the stickum comes not uniformly but in the form of tiny, discrete beads, most spiders can negotiate even their gummiest strands, deftly tiptoeing among the droplets of doom.
Keep an eye peeled for that famous summer sky show, the Perseid meteor shower, which will peak on the 11th. This edition of the Perseids should be the most spectacular in four years, with an expected peak rate of nearly 100 meteors per hour. (Meteor showers, by the way, occur when Earth passes through the orbit of a comet, coming in direct contact with its trail of debris. In the case of the Perseids, we're colliding with the ancient residue of the comet Swift-Tuttle, which last made a close pass back in 1862.) The full Moon falls on the 18th. This month, Venus will be very low in the west to southwest sky at dusk; Mars, low in the southwest, near the constellation Spica; and Jupiter, low in the east to southeast. — David N. Schramm

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