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Trees Talk to Each Other

Tree roots in a handshake

Did you know that trees talk to each other and share messages through a sophisticated underground network composed of a web of fungi?  Nineteenth Century German Biologist Albert Bernard Frank coined the word “mycorrhiza” to describe these partnerships in which the fungus colonized the roots of the trees.  Many contemporary biologists have started using the term “Wood Wide Web” to describe this service that the fungi provide to both trees and plants.

The taller and older trees, also known as the “Mother Trees”, which rise above the forest floor are connected to all the other trees in the forest by this network of fungal threads and may also be responsible for managing the resources of their surrounding plant community. Forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simand at the University of British Columbia explains that “without this helping hand, most of the seedlings wouldn’t make it.” The tree network is used to enable trees to access water and to absorb nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.  Research shows that when a Mother Tree is cut down, the survival rate of the surrounding younger trees is greatly diminished.

Trees can also warn one another when they are under attack from insects or invading species of plants. Willow trees, poplars and sugar maples will begin to pump out bug-repelling chemicals to ward off hungry and often deadly bugs when they receive messages from neighboring trees that are infested.  The American Black Walnut tree will protect its own resources by inhibiting the growth of other plants such as potatoes and cucumbers by releasing a chemical called jugalone from its leaves and roots. Nearby trees are somehow able to know what their neighbors are experiencing by sending, receiving and interpreting messages from each other. The fungal “Wood Wide Web” demonstrates one of the primary lessons of ecology: Seemingly individual organisms are often highly connected and many depend on each other for survival.