Trees Talk to Each Other and Recognize Their Offspring

The Lorax might have spoken for the trees, but it turns out that trees can speak for themselves. At least to other trees, that is.

Forest of trees

Edwin van Buuringen / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

While it's not news that non-human elements of the natural world can communicate on some level, the idea that mycelia—the main body of fungi, as opposed to mushrooms, which are the fruiting bodies—can act as a sort of old-school planetary internet is still a fairly recent one. And it may serve as a spore of a new breed of forestry, ecology, land management.

Trees' Natural Internet

Paul Stamets famously posited that "mycelia are Earth's natural Internet," and a variety of research has borne out that concept, showing that, among other things, mycelia can act as a conduit for signaling between plants. However, most of us tend to ignore the micro in favor of the macro. And when it comes to conservation and natural resources, our systems may be falling prey to reductionist thinking, where a tree is merely a commodity that can be replaced simply by planting another tree.

In fact, many reforestation efforts are considered successful when a large number of trees are replanted in areas where clearcutting has rendered large tracts of land treeless, even if those replanted trees are essentially turning a once-diverse forest into a monocropped "farm" of trees. At the TEDSummit 2016, forest ecologist Suzanne Simard seemed to lay the idea to rest that a forest is merely a collection of trees that can be thought of as fully independent entities, standing alone even while surrounded by other trees and vegetation. Simard, who has put in about three decades of research work into Canada's forests, wants us to change the way we think about forests. "A forest is much more than what you see," she says. In the video below, she talks about how trees communicate with each other, and how they can even recognize their own kin.

Simard recounts:

"Now, we know we all favor our own children, and I wondered, could Douglas fir recognize its own kin, like mama grizzly and her cub? So we set about an experiment, and we grew mother trees with kin and stranger's seedlings. And it turns out they do recognize their kin. Mother trees colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings. So we've used isotope tracing to trace carbon moving from an injured mother tree down her trunk into the mycorrhizal network and into her neighboring seedlings, not only carbon but also defense signals. And these two compounds have increased the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses. So trees talk."

The Fungi Factor

I'm a bit of a fungi nerd, and with good reason, as fungi are one of the key elements of life on Earth while being one of the least understood, at least in terms of the sheer volume of varieties and how they interact with the rest of the systems on the planet. I'm currently reading "Radical Mycology: A Treatise on Seeing and Working With Fungi," which is an incredible foray into the world of fungi, and was kind of blown away by the fact that of an estimated 15 million species on Earth, some 6 million of them may be fungi, and yet only about 75,000 of them, or 1.5%, have been classified as of now.

This means that the study of mycology is one of the areas of the life sciences that is still relatively untapped, and because of what we're now starting to learn about fungal networks and mycelial "internets," could be a key element in our journey to a more sustainable world. At the very least, it should sway us into rethinking the way we think about trees.

View Article Sources
  1. Babikova, Zdenka et al. "Underground Signals Carried Through Common Mycelial Networks Warn Neighbouring Plants Of Aphid Attack." Ecology Letters, vol. 16, no. 7, 2013, pp. 835-843., doi:10.1111/ele.12115