Trees are not silent and solitary organisms, but social and communicative beings that can interact with each other in remarkable ways. Through underground networks of fungi, trees can send and receive signals, share resources, and cooperate for their mutual benefit. These networks can connect many trees of different species and ages, creating a complex and dynamic community of plants.
One of the pioneers of this field of research is Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia. She discovered that trees can communicate with each other through fungal networks in the 1990s, when she was studying paper birch and Douglas fir trees in Canada. She found that these trees were exchanging carbon through their roots and the fungi that grew around them. She also found that they were sending chemical signals to warn each other of insect attacks.
Since then, Simard and other researchers have uncovered more evidence of how trees communicate and cooperate through fungal networks. They have found that trees can share not only carbon, but also nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and water, especially when one tree is in need or stress. They have also found that trees can send electrical impulses through their roots and the fungi, similar to neural signals in animal brains. These impulses can help trees process information and adapt to changing conditions.
One of the most fascinating aspects of tree communication is the role of “mother trees” or “hub trees”. These are usually older and larger trees that have more connections and influence than others. They can support younger or weaker trees by sharing resources or sending warnings. They can also influence the growth and survival of their offspring or kin by favouring them over strangers or competitors. Simard calls these mother trees “the wisdom of the forest” because they help maintain the diversity and resilience of the forest as a whole.
However, these fungal networks are not always beneficial or harmonious. They can also transmit diseases or toxins between trees. They can also be disrupted by environmental threats, such as climate change, pine beetle infestations, and logging. These threats can damage or destroy the fungal networks, reducing the communication and cooperation between trees. This can have negative consequences for the health and survival of the forest.
Simard’s work has helped change how we view and value trees. She argues that trees are not just resources to be exploited, but living beings to be respected. She advocates for a more holistic and sustainable approach to forest management, one that considers the needs and relationships of trees as well as humans. She hopes that by understanding how trees communicate and cooperate, we can learn to communicate and cooperate better with them.
Featured photo credit – Sindi Short from Pixabay