I love spending time in the forest. Trees stretching above and around me fills me with a sense of contentment and wonder. How did these trees grow to be their adult selves, towering testaments to botanical strength?
To learn more, I am reading “The Hidden Life of Trees” By Peter Wohlleben. Often, we see trees as static additions to the landscape, not much different from lampposts. Since they don’t move at a pace we can observe, they are just… there. However, this book is teaching me that there is so much activity and complexity beneath this facade of motionlessness. For example, their systems of communication.
We often think of communication as an auditory, primarily human trait. We hear bird song, and know that other animals also have methods of relaying information, but surely plants are not a part of this club.
Science is disproving this assumption! In fact, it has been found that trees have at least two distinct methods of inter-species messaging: scent and fungi.
Trees can disperse messages on the wind. For example, species such as beeches, spruce, and oaks sense when an insect starts eating a leaf or burrowing into bark. They then release specialized pheromones that attract a beneficial predator that can eat the pest.
Trees can also communicate by chemical and electrical signals sent through fungal networks that connect their root systems. Roots systems spread very far, so those of different individuals are often entangled within one another. Each of these roots are in symbiotic relationships with fungi, which help the trees process nutrients from the soil. Additionally, this fungi is often shared between roots of multiple trees, creating a wide reaching interconnected system. There is so much of this fungi in the forest floor that many miles are found in one teaspoon of soil!
Trees use this network to communicate news of dangers such as insects and drought. Interestingly, these lines of connection are shared by trees of all species. This concept of the “wood wide web”, as coined by Dr. Suzane Simard of UBC, is a relatively new area of science, with many questions still to be solved.
Next time you go for a walk in the forest, take a moment to think about the thousands of messages being sent, received, and acted on by your more-than-human hosts: the trees.