By Allie Wisniewski, American Forests
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn — I’m sure you’re familiar with these modern modes of communication. Humans in the digital age have come to heavily use, and even rely on, social networking platforms to share information, news and ideas. But what if I told you that trees have their own version of social media? That’s exactly what ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered two decades ago while researching her doctoral thesis — a discovery that completely changed the way scientists thought about interactions between plants.
Using a latticed network of fungi called mycelium buried deep within the soil, trees are essentially able to converse with each other, sending signals warning of shifts in environment and even transferring their own nutrients to neighboring plants in the face of death. Because the fungi are unable to photosynthesize, they receive nutritional sugars and carbon from the trees. Of course, the trees don’t work for free — the fungi act as connectors between their individual root systems, and also provide them with phosphorous, nitrogen and water.
Network of mycelium deep within the soil, the“pipelines through which signals and nutrients travel between trees. Credit: Alice Harrington
That’s right, what may seem like competition and “survival of the fittest” from above may have its roots in cooperation. While this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sharing cat videos or concert clips like we might, the inherent concept is the same in the contexts of both humans and trees: We’re networking! The ability to communicate turns a forest of individual entities into an intricate system of information exchanges and symbiotic signaling, often over vast distances. Simard describes the network as a sort of below-ground pipeline, through which carbon, water and other nutrients travel from the roots of one tree to another.
What’s more, it’s not just family helping family. Simard’s research reveals that inter-species collaboration is common, as in the case of paper birches and Douglas-firs in British Columbia forests. Her current scope of study investigates the potential effects of challenges such as climate change and deforestation on these intelligent systems. How does clear-cutting change the efficiency of forest carbon cycling? What are the best forest retention practices aimed at sustaining mycorrhizal networks?
It’s clear that Simard is on to something here. She hopes that in light of her findings, people will discover a new way to relate to the forests that, from afar, may often seem mysterious and detached. To summarize perfectly, she reminds us: “A forest is much more than what you see.”