10 of the Largest Living Things on the Planet

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Corpse flower

credit: kkaplin

From the world's largest bird to the biggest fungus and flower, these colossuses of their classes take the prize for size. What a wonderful world we live in, populated with such an abundance of living things great and small. And while the most minute of the bunch go unseen by the naked eye, the big guys grab our attention. But Mother Nature is nothing if not sly; the biggest organism on the planet (see page 10) went undetected until just the end of the 20th century. (And we think we're so smart!) The largest living members of each particular species are a fascinating crowd, allow us to introduce you to some of the superstars. First up, the planet's brawniest blossom.

Shakespeare may have noted that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but he had presumably never met a corpse flower. Also known as Rafflesia arnoldii, the poetically named posy boasts the largest bloom in the world, measuring in at 3-feet wide with blossoms that weigh 15 pounds. And just to prove that nature has a sense of humor, it reeks not of the perfumed attar of rose or the heady scent of jasmine ... but of rotting flesh. Sweet! But so it does to attract the insects that pollinate the plant; so all is just as it should be.

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The largest animal

credit: NOAA Photo Library

Perhaps the most superlative of all, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). When a baby blue whale is born, it measures up to 25 feet in length and weighs up to three tons ... and then it gains a mere 200 pounds a day for the first year. That’s big. The biggest animal, in fact, known to live on Earth. Growing to lengths of up to 100 feet and weighing up to 200 tons, the tongue of these giant beauties can weigh as much as an elephant and their hearts as much as a car. They are so loud that their calls can be heard by one another from 1,000 miles away; the spray from their blowhole can reach 30 feet into the air. In the beginning of the 20th century the whaling industry set its sights on these leviathans; a single blue whale could bring in up to 120 barrels of oil. Hunting peaked in 1931 when over 29,000 were killed in one season – after which the whales were so few in numbers that whalers turned to other species. Not until 1966 did the International Whaling Commission ban the hunting of blue whales. Before whaling there were over 350,000 of them; up to 99 percent of them were killed during the frenzy. Recovery has been slow – as of now, there are around 5,000 to 10,000 blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere, and an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 in the Northern Hemisphere.

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The heaviest known organism

credit: Mark Muir, USDA

In Utah's Fishlake National Forest in Utah there lives a massive grove of trees called Pando, which is actually a single clonal colony of a male quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). Nicknamed the Trembling Giant, this enormous root system is comprised of some 47,000 stems that create the grove. All together – with all of the individual trunks, branches and leaves – this quivering organism weighs in at an estimated 6,600 short tons. It is the heaviest known organism on the planet, and perhaps even more impressive is its age. Conservative estimates put it at 80,000 years old, making it also the oldest living thing known to man.

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The largest land animal

credit: Wikimedia Commons

While the blue whale takes the prize overall, the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) holds the title for largest land animal. Reaching extraordinary lengths of up to 24 feet and gaining heights of 13 feet, these beautiful gray beasts weigh in at 11 tons. Their trunks alone can lift objects of more than 400 pounds. Living in African habitats from open savanna to the desert and high rainforest, African bush elephants are herbivores and require upwards of 350 pounds of vegetation daily for sustenance. Another record they break? They endure the longest period of pregnancy – females give birth to a lone calf after 22 months of gestation. Because of habitat destruction and poaching for ivory, these noble creatures are considered highly threatened.

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The largest tree by volume

credit: Mike Baird/Flickr

The world's largest tree is a stately giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) known as General Sherman in California's Sequoia National Park. This majestic arboreal master is about 52,500 cubic feet in volume. As described by the National Parks Service, computing the volume of a standing tree is the practical equivalent of calculating the volume of an irregular cone. For purposes of volume comparison, they explain, only the trunk of a giant sequoia is measured, including the restored volume of basal fire scars. And while it hulks at a 274.9 feet in height, it doesn't come close to the tallest tree, also in the Golden State. That honor goes to Hyperion, a 379.7-foot-tall redwood. Surprisingly, at 2,000 years old, General Sherman is only a middle-aged giant sequoia, based on ring counts other sequoias are believed to be more than 3,220 years old. But, even so, the General beats all other trees when it comes to bulk.

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The largest invertebrate

credit: Ryan Somma/flickr

In terms of creatures without backbones, the aptly named colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) has all others beat when it comes to size. The world's largest squid species and the largest invertebrate on the planet, they can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds and can grow to 30 feet long. Yes, that's a 30-foot long squid, replete with killer beak, sucker-dressed tentacles, and arms armed with razor claws. Run. Away. But in truth, new research is finding that these fearsome-seeming creatures are really just kind of gentle floating giants – "sluggish, gelatinous drifters," as National Geographic calls them. That said, they retain no shortage of mystery. They live in the icy Antarctic waters 6,560 feet beneath the surface and have never been observed in the wild ... which is why we have a model squid standing in for the real McCoy in the photo above.

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The tallest land animal

credit: Luca Galuzzi

At once gawky and elegant, the incredible giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) earns the distinction of being the world's tallest mammal, thanks to a combination of lanky legs and that famously long neck. The legs of these even-toed ungulates – the largest of ruminants – are taller than many people. Giraffes can grow to heights of 19 feet and can weigh as much as 2,800 pounds – yet despite all that mass, they can sprint up to a speedy 35 miles an hour over short distances and trot comfortably at 10 miles an hour when covering longer stretches. Giraffes have adapted to graze leaves and fruit from trees; when the length of their necks are combined with their 20-inch long tongues, they can reach vegetation otherwise reserved only for birds.

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The largest reptile

credit: thinboyfatter/flickr

While many of the world's largest creatures are docile by nature, the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) ... not so much. As the largest of living reptiles – as well as the largest terrestrial and riparian predator in the world – the males reach lengths of 22 feet and can weigh in at 4,400 pounds. Which makes their habit of lurking in the water and ambushing unsuspecting passersby all the more terrifying. These deft predators will feed on anything that enters their territory, including water buffalo, monkeys, wild boar, and even sharks. They can explode wildly from the water, powered by their tails, grab a meal, and drag it beneath the water until it drowns. Researchers say that the saltwater crocodile exhibits "vastly more bellicose behavior" than other species, being the only species to display agitated tail twitching and lunging head strikes. Humans, beware.

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The heaviest bird

credit: Wikimedia Commons

While a weight of 350 pounds and a height of 9 feet are downright puny compared to some of the other creatures included in this menagerie, keep in mind that the ostrich (Struthio camelus) is a bird! Compare that to its smallest colleague, the bee hummingbird, who weighs in at a wee 0.056 ounces and measure a mere 2.24 inches in total length. Indeed, the ostrich is is the world's heaviest bird ... yet though they cannot fly, they can sprint up to 43 miles an hour and run long distance at 31 miles an hour. Hello, big bird.

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And the largest thing of all

credit: Charles de Mille-Isles/flickr

In 1998, members of the U.S. Forest Service set out to determine the cause of 112 tree deaths in the Malheur National Forest in east Oregon. Their samples and tests showed that the trees had been infected with the honey fungus, Armillaria solidipes (formerly Armillaria ostoyae). And in fact, they discovered that 61 of the trees had been killed by the same clonal colony – as in, one organism. The team was able to determine that this single tree-killing being covered an area of 3.7 square miles, and occupied some 2,384 acres. The humongous fungus consists mainly of black lace-like rhizomorphs that spread out below the ground in search of new hosts and subterranean networks of tubular filaments called mycelia. Above ground, it sports clusters of honey-hued mushrooms. The 1998 discovery was remarkable in that not only would the massive specimen of A. solidipes be recognized as the world's largest known organism, but based on its growth rate, the fungus is estimated to be 2,400 years old – and possibly as old as as 8,650 years – making it one of the planet's oldest living organisms as well. Related: 10 of the world's most remarkable trees