In recent years, scientists have made a startling discovery: trees can communicate with each other. These researchers were astounded to find that they talk through underground networks so vast, they boggle the mind.
These networks are, in the words of Suzanne Simard, a “world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees, and allow them to communicate, and allow the forest to behave as if it was a single organism.”
Suzanne was the first scientist to uncover the secrets of arboreal communication. From a young age, she was filled with awe by the magnificent life forms we know as trees.
When she was just starting out as a forest scientist, her colleagues had made an interesting discovery: that, in a laboratory setting, the roots of one pine seedling can transmit carbon to the roots of another seedling. There were also promising initial findings that even trees of different species could exchange information and resources with each other.
Lots of scientists had a hard time believing that this could happen outside of a test facility.
However, Suzanne wasn’t one of them. The question gnawed at the back of her mind, until it became an obsession: does this phenomenon happen in a real forest? At the time, if you were a serious researcher and seriously entertained the idea that trees could share information and resources with each other, you would have been labeled a heretic.
Suzanne had a difficult time getting research funding. But she was determined, and eventually got a little cash to conduct some basic research. Her initial experiment consisted of 80 trees, divided amongst three species—paper birch, Douglas fir, and Western red cedar.
Her hunch was that there might be communication between different species if they grew near each other in the wild. So, she hypothesized that since that the birch and the fir naturally grew close to each other, there would be some exchange of information.
She also thought that there wouldn’t be any communication between the cedar and the first two species because they didn’t grow near each other.
It was time to gather her equipment and put her unconventional theory to the test. Since she got such a paltry amount for her experiments, she had to do everything on the cheap.
She went to Canadian Tire, where she purchased shade cloths, a timer, a respirator, a paper suit, and a few other things. She borrowed some high-tech gadgets from her university including a mass spectrometer, microscopes, a Geiger counter, and some radioactive carbon 13 and carbon 14 carbon dioxide.
She encased the trees with plastic bags to keep the gas in. She also threw a shade cloth over the fir tree so that it wouldn’t be able to do photosynthesis.
Then, she injected each seedling with carbon 14. The fir trees also got a dose of carbon 13. She used two different isotopes because that was the only to make sure there was two-way communication going on. She let enough time elapse for the trees to suck up the radioactive carbon dioxide.
If her hypothesis was correct, the beech tree would extract the carbon from the carbon dioxide and share that carbon with the fir tree.
That’s exactly what happened!
The Geiger counter confirmed, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the birch and the fir were exchanging carbon. Because the fir tree was carbon starved, it somehow sent out a distress call.
The birch tree picked up on the signal and sent carbon to the fir tree. As Suzanne predicted, there was absolutely no communication between the cedar and the other two species.
That autumn, she decided to try something a little different.
She removed the shade cloth from the fir tree after the birch tree had shed all its leaves. This time, the fir tree sent carbon to the birch tree. This was because the fir tree could still do photosynthesis while the birch tree couldn’t.
The Mycorrhizal Network
Suzanne proved that not only were the two species communicating with each other, but they were also cooperating. She knew that this could be a paradigm-busting, game-changing finding that would forever change how people saw trees!
Suzanne discovered that the key component in this massive communications network that allowed all this cooperation was what scientists call the “mycorrhizal network.” This is the vast interconnected web of fungi that transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals from one fungus to another.
The parts of these plants you can see are their reproductive organs. We call them “mushrooms.” This underground web can be so dense, there can be hundreds of miles of mycelium underneath a single inch of soil.
Over the millennia, trees and fungi developed a symbiotic relationship of exchanging nutrients with each other through their respective roots. The trees also found a secondary purpose for these branching filaments: as an underground Internet of sorts, connecting them with each other and even different species.
This exchange of information and resources isn’t only carbon, but also phosphorous, water, nitrogen, defense signals, hormones, and other things trees need to survive.
To communicate through the network, trees send chemical, hormonal, and slow-pulsing electrical signals. Edward Farmer at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland has been studying this communication for years. He identified are a voltage-based signaling system that’s eerily like the nervous systems of animals.
Monica Gagliano, a scientist at the University of Western Australia, has uncovered tantalizing evidence that plants can make sounds that other plants can detect. Trees also use pheromones, substances released into the air that affects the behavior of others of its own species, to communicate.
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The most important component in this vast interconnected communication network are the “hub trees”—these are the larger, maternal trees who nurture the young trees growing in the understory, where there’s little light.
A mother tree can be connected to hundreds of juvenile trees. The hub trees use the network to send carbon to the trees in the understory. These trees are in dire need of carbon, since their ability to use photosynthesis is severely limited.
When hub trees are near death, they transmit one final message to their progeny consisting of things the next generation needs to know. This is encoded information that help their offspring survive in the coming years and be more resilient against disease.
We’ve always known that trees were magnificent living things. However, recent research is showing that they’re marvelous beyond anything we could have dreamed!
We owe it to them to keep them as healthy as we can, for as long as we can. When it comes to trimming trees, it’s crucial to hire someone who knows what he’s doing. Inexperienced trimmers using bad or inappropriate methods can ruin not only your tree’s natural beauty, but also its physical wellbeing.
Then, decades of work getting the tree to grow to its present state of breathtaking grandeur by both you and generations before you will have been for naught.