Featured Image for Wood Wide Web: The fascinating way trees talk to – and sabotage – one another
Science

Wood Wide Web: The fascinating way trees talk to – and sabotage – one another

This is one of those revelations that is really going to make sticking to a plant-based diet even more difficult – trees can talk.

While we may go to the forest to get some peace and quiet from the constant chatter of the outside world, as well as to disconnect from social media, it turns out that trees are actually constantly talking among themselves in a complex social network of their own, which has been nicknamed ‘The Wood Wide Web’.

And, just as much of our own conversations now take place in a largely silent fashion via cables and signals, so too do trees communicate via an unheard fashion – through a fungal network found in and around their roots.

The fungi and trees have a symbiotic relationship – the fungi provide the trees with nutrients, and in return receive sugars.

However, these fungi are also part of a broader network that links trees in close proximity to one another, allowing trees to ‘communicate’ among themselves. In fact, ecologist Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia, discovered that a network of Douglas fir trees in an area of 30 square metres had one tree linked to 47 others.

fir tree network

Via NZ Geo

As to what the network does, it’s a complex way of ensuring survival – both by helping one another as well as ‘attacking’ their fellow trees.

For example, older trees – also known as ‘Mother Trees’ – will share their sugars with younger saplings, so as to ensure these weaker trees have a stronger chance of survival.

Then there are trees that are dying, which will ‘dump’ their nutrients into the network to be spread among the other trees in the network – thought to be a calculated gamble on the tree’s part that their nutrients will end up helping trees of their own species.

However, there is also a dark side to this network, with trees such orchids ‘hacking’ into the system to take advantage of the nutrients being passed around.

As to whether this is really a form of ‘talking’, that’s still being debated.

“It really isn’t clear whether a plant releasing chemicals intends to pass on information to another plant by doing so. I respond to the chemicals released by frying onions but that doesn’t mean that the onions are talking to me,” Stuart Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Plant Biochemistry at the University of Westminster, wrote in The Converation.

However, Professor Simard says this is just the best way of communicating a complex idea to humans.

“A forest is a cooperative system,” Simard told Yale Environment 360.

“To me, using the language of ‘communication’ made more sense because we were looking at not just resource transfers, but things like defence signalling and kin recognition signalling.

“We as human beings can relate to this better. If we can relate to it, then we’re going to care about it more. If we care about it more, then we’re going to do a better job of stewarding our landscapes.”

About the author

Joe was Junior Vice-President at Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net until it was bought out by Bill Gates. He now subedits for Conversant Media and considers it a step up.

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