Oak tree
Oak tree credit:Justin Kern

With roughly 30 percent of Earth’s land surface categorized as forestland, it can be quite the project to estimate how these trees are interacting with the planet. How much carbon are they taking in? How much water are they using and releasing into the air? How much oxygen are the trees producing? These questions are easy to answer if you’re looking at one particular tree in a specific location. When scientists must estimate how a whole stand of trees is interacting with the environment, though, it becomes tricky, but some recent research may help with that.

As reported by Phys.org, researchers from the University of Arizona’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology have discovered that trees of different species often have similar infrastructure or branching systems despite their diverse outward appearances. Publishing their results in journal Ecology Letters, the scientists describe how they sampled various trees, coniferous and deciduous, with very different shapes — nine trees were researched in all — but the way in which the branches split is remarkably similar in all of the studied trees. In addition, they found that all of a trees branches combined equals the area of the trunk.

If this idea sounds familiar, it should. The observation that all trees share a similar branching pattern and have branches that when combined equal the size of the trunk was first suggested by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago, although theories why all trees share this universal design is still being debated and researched.

Young Tree
Young Tree Credit:Rosa Say

The implications of this new research are pretty significant according to the researchers, as it would allow one to measure just a few trees in order to determine the ecological function of the entire forest. Lead researcher Dr. Lisa Patrick Bentley tells Phys.org, “This theory can be used to scale the size of plants to their function, such as amount of photosynthesis, water loss and respiration, especially in light of climate change. If you were to look at an entire forest and wanted to know how much carbon this forest puts out, our study supports the idea that you might only have to look at the properties of a few trees, representing the smallest and the largest, to figure this out.”

Now, of course, there are outliers, with Dr. Bentley relating that some aspects of the new theory need to be modified to incorporate species variations. But the research is an intriguing step toward being able to more accurately and quickly calculate the work forests are doing on our behalf.