How Trees Talk to Each Other Without Speaking
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It’s apparent how vital communication is for humans and almost every animal species on the planet. However, most don’t consider if or how plants talk. Ecologists have researched the connection between plants for years, specifically trees, and unlocked priceless insights on how the Earth protects its environment outside human influence.
Learning how trees talk to each other could be a secret to bolstering climate crisis mitigation efforts if humans can support their conversations for more extraordinary global healing efforts.
What Research Shaped the Discipline?
Suzanne Simard is the most notable revolutionary in uncovering the language of trees. During Simard’s doctoral research, she tested if an isolated tree sapling of the same species and different ones would transfer radioactive isotopes. After a time, the surrounding saplings from the originally infected one were also tainted by radioactivity. Results like this affirm how elements share between independent organisms.
Mycelium, minuscule threads from fungi, interweave with tree roots to form mycorrhizal networks. These systems allow trees to share nutrients like carbon in their language. The mycelium spreads and colonizes throughout root systems to connect trees to compatible species. A constant transference of resources and communication signals amplifies human understanding of trees, going beyond mutualism to dependant symbiotic relationships.
Despite this vast network that’s larger than humans could comprehend, not all trees connect to the same network. Two types of networks — ectomycorrhiza and arbuscular mycorrhiza — connect different species.
Simard dove deeper to analyze what she refers to as “hub” or “mother” trees. These refer to old-growth trees that have countless children, and they’re all connected through the network. The younger trees rely on the hub tree to survive, as its age can nourish the young with additional carbon stores or water. There is proof mother trees prefer their kin, as some have demonstrated pushing aside competing roots to make way for their children to expand.
Why Do Trees Connect Through Networks?
The resilience of plants is beyond human comprehension. They cannot migrate to more fitting climates and evade the onslaughts of predators. Essentially, they’re the most formidable creature on the planet without moving an inch. They have survived multiple extinction events in the Earth’s history, battered by environmental changes. These facts may make trees sound invulnerable. However, humans have changed how well forests can fight against negative influences.
Everything from deforestation to fertilizer has compromised tree health, making their networks work overtime to transfer necessary nutrients to keep as many alive as possible. They can move everything from:
- Emergency defense signals and enzymes
Simard’s experiments reveal innumerable avenues exist for trees and forests to act and communicate symbiotically. The trees work almost empathetically, helping hurt saplings or nursing them to develop. Even when the old-growth trees die, the connected forest loses its vigor. Environmental advocates rally to adjust the behaviors of corporations and their logging practices and combat climate-related tragedies like wildfires killing legacy trees.
The younger, smaller trees still attempt to grow even as a hub tree dies. The young will try to support each other to fill the gap in the forest canopy to reach as close to the sun as possible for optimal photosynthesis. It’s another signifier of their attempts to support the greater whole instead of competing for sun access.
Why Do These Networks Matter Now?
Because trees bond through these networks, it gives them an incomparable advantage in nurturing each other. Adversely, it provides an equally significant disadvantage, as blights and bugs could torment an entire network of connected trees. A tree could fall ill, or victim to munching insects, and surrounding trees can provide extra nutrients through the pathways to help. However, if a more contagious force permeates the network, the forest will have more problems than it can solve.
On top of this, trees suffer excess environmental stressors from volatile climate changes and increased human abuse, such as clear-cutting.
The tree networks prove they can self-heal. However, it’s not quick or strong enough to combat these unforeseen influences. Ultimately, Simard’s revolutionary research isn’t justification for why humans shouldn’t worry about ethical forestry anymore because the trees can take care of their own. It should incite more action.
Simard encourages all who care about the forests to discourage clear-cutting practices, even institutions that replant the trees they cut. Most of the time, companies replant fast-growing species as a monoculture instead of the species initially cut, which would take longer — this harms biodiversity and ecosystem livelihood. Replanting quick-growing species is also justification for companies to abuse mother trees, which damages the environment even more deeply.
Decoding the Language of Trees
Though the idea of trees talking to each other sounds like a fairy tale, science confirms they frequently converse — just not in how humans perceive language. Experiments highlight trees’ support for local development, encouraging infants to grow and aiding the sick.
The tree network is still a relatively recent concept in ecology and one worth exploring as the climate pressures forests. Humans must support these networks to continue their internal conversations because, without them, human efforts to nurse a few trees back to health may not be enough for sustainable forests.
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About the author
Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.