Video: Trees Have Their Own Internet, and It Works Like Ours

Candice Gaukel Andrews October 1, 2015 33
Fungal networks may be critical in helping forests deal with climate change. These biological webs conserve genetic resources for future tree migrations, ensure that forest carbon stocks remain intact and safeguard species diversity. ©Eric Rock

Underground fungal networks may be critical in helping forests deal with climate change. These biological webs ensure that forest carbon stocks remain intact, conserve nutrients for future tree migrations and safeguard species diversity. ©Eric Rock

I admit I may be what some would consider a little too woo-woo, “out there” when it comes to trees. I’ve always had a special affinity for them; I’ve even written whole books about them. On this blog, I’ve presented to you reports on plant sentience and the fact that trees talk by releasing chemicals into the air. There have been a lot of doubters among you—which is only healthy, necessary and right for ensuring that we pass on true, scientific findings. But I’m happy to say that there is now even more evidence that trees communicate with each other—and this time, it’s via fungi.

Fungal mycelia connect the roots of trees in a forest. ©From the video “‪Do Trees Communicate?,” Dan McKinney‬‬, Black Forrest Productions, 2011‬

Fungal mycelia connect the roots of trees in a forest. ©From the video “‪Do Trees Communicate?,” Dan McKinney‬‬, Black Forrest Productions, 2011‬

Suzanne W. Simard, a professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia, is an expert in plant-to-plant and plant-to-soil microbial interactions. Recently, her studies have shown that all trees in a forest ecosystem are interconnected, with the largest, oldest, “mother trees” serving as hubs.

Working in the Douglas fir forests of interior British Columbia, Professor Simard has demonstrated that trees communicate by way of an “Internet” made of fungi. Networks of fungal mycelia (masses of branching, thread-like filaments) connect the roots of trees in a mutually beneficial relationship: trees supply the fungi with food in the form of carbohydrates. In return, the fungi help the trees suck up water and nutrients the mycelia gather from the soil. This bolsters the trees’ resilience against disturbance or stress. If the fungal links are not conserved—or the mother trees are removed—a whole network could unravel and the regenerative capacity of the forest would be compromised.

If given a chance, a dying tree will pass on what it can to future generations. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

If given a chance, a dying tree will pass on what it can to future generations. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Watch the video below. It depicts how most of the plants you can see in a forest are connected below ground—not directly through their roots but via their mycelial connections. I particularly like Dr. Simard’s thought at the end: instead of cutting down dying trees in a forest and immediately hauling the wood away, we should let them stand for a while, giving them time to pass on what they can to the next generation.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, in the end, isn’t that what we all want to do?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

33 Comments »

  1. Jackson Luanda January 5, 2016 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    Nice video, I learned new things on fungie’s relations to a tree.

  2. Barbara Rosensteel November 9, 2015 at 8:42 am - Reply

    Her research follows on some of the pioneering work of Paul Stamets, a pioneering mycologist. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Stamets

  3. Laurence Hutchinson November 7, 2015 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    The dash for cash via modern food production has spent the last 60 years destroying those vital ecological connections, one tends to look like an outsider if one suggests ecological food production systems, it is good to see that the penny has dropped but a great deal of ecological damage has been done in the process, which of course now needs to be repaired.

  4. Patrick Lowe November 7, 2015 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment (Third Edition) Christopher D. Stone

  5. Russell Donnelly November 7, 2015 at 5:55 pm - Reply

    We already owe all life species respect and equality. If we understood their respective languages there would be far greater communication potential for mutualistic NEEDS AFFRODABILITY !!! 🙂 Better networking; better results !!! 🙂

  6. Carina Sparre Lippert November 7, 2015 at 5:55 pm - Reply

    Russel Donnelly, do we need to understand what other species are saying, in order to give them the respect they deserve? Otherwise, I totally agree with your comment! 😉

  7. Russell Donnelly November 7, 2015 at 5:54 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this illuminating informational update. FINALLY !!! After approximately 10,000 years we humankind are finally starting to get it ! The five spheres of the biosphere are very intricately synergized and synchronized as one living planet. This presentation gives hope that we, as a species, may finally grow up, wake up, and learn the language of life on this planet. With progress like this we may yet be allowed by Nature to survive. Maybe one day soon we may actually be able to understand what all the other species on this planet are saying ??!! 🙂

  8. Paul Vézina November 7, 2015 at 5:52 pm - Reply

    We are just starting to learn the important roles of fungi in our environment. Very good information.

  9. Dr.Ratikanta Maiti October 24, 2015 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    Excellent education.

  10. Rob Bouta October 24, 2015 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    Fascinating! This leaves me wondering how we share this concept of networked interdependence and community stability in a way that inspires new action toward global sustainability.

  11. James Crants October 24, 2015 at 1:30 pm - Reply

    I think I’m one of those “doubters.” What I doubt, though, is not that trees communicate, nor that trees and mycorrhizal fungi are networked this way, but the value of the anthropomorphic analogies used and the assertion that “survival of the fittest” isn’t a dominant theme in tree evolution and forest ecology. At times, this video gives one the impression that the largest trees are consciously looking out for their smaller neighbors. Dr. Simard calls them “mother trees,” tells us trees are “trying to help each other survive,” talks about trees “shuffling carbon and nitrogen back and forth according to who needs it,” and describes a “passing of the torch” in resources being translocated from dying trees to growing trees. I don’t at all doubt the reality of the phenomena described, but the implication of intent makes me uncomfortable.

    The trees are plugged into this mycelial network because they need the mineral nutrients the fungi provide. The fungi are plugged into the network because they benefit from the easy access to sugar it provides. In his PhD research, Miro Kummel found that the trees are unable to preferentially interact with more generous mycorrhizal partners and cut out the relative “cheaters”, which strongly suggests that, at least on the fungal end of things, there’s no advantage to being more altruistic than necessary. I strongly suspect the same is true in the other direction – that trees do not benefit from leaking more sugar to their partners than they have to. Each partner is giving resources to the other because it’s physically impossible to access the resources the other has without giving access to the resources it lacks.

    Overall, the forest “internet” is a vast system of sources and sinks that nobody can opt out of because everybody needs something from it. The “mother trees” don’t warm-heartedly donate carbon to the smaller trees. They simply have a higher concentration of carbon than other players in the network (having the best access to sunlight), so there’s a net translocation of carbon out of their tissues and into the tissues of any living thing connected to them with a low concentration of carbon. Dying trees don’t intentionally “pass the torch” to growing trees. Because they’re dying, their demand for carbon is lower than that of the actively growing trees, so the sugars and mineral nutrients in their vascular tissue pass into the network toward anything in the network with a stronger demand for them (like the growing root and shoot tips of younger trees nearby).

    That said, I want to reiterate that I have no doubts about anything factual Dr. Simard has said. I’m just not fond of analogies that imply conscious intent, intelligence, or emotions on the part of trees. There may be some value in the peaceful-society metaphor in that we humans feel worse about clearcutting loving mother trees and their nurtured dependents than we do about clearcutting a mess of ruthless competitors, but I think equating trees with compassionate, ethical paragons of human behavior can only get in the way of actually understanding how forests work.

  12. Esther Ekua Amoako October 21, 2015 at 6:48 am - Reply

    I love this. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Alex Raymonds Oduor October 19, 2015 at 10:58 am - Reply

    This is really amazing. It is quiet clear there is quite a lot for humans to learn about their environment. I hope this is what will make us responsive to be more concerned in ecosystem conservation.

  14. Agathe Jean Rib Benley October 19, 2015 at 7:23 am - Reply

    Now people will understand why trees look sad when their neighbours are being cut down and taken away!

  15. Gebremariam Gebrezgabher October 19, 2015 at 7:22 am - Reply

    It seems like the function of micro organisms in under ground may serve as fiber net in communicating among the biological community. Yes I am interested to hear about new findings about Ecology and Nature since I specialized in Natural resource economics and policy and I would like to say thanks for sharing this interesting research finding!!

  16. Laurence Hutchinson October 18, 2015 at 11:46 am - Reply

    Those fungal interactions reach into the streams and rivers, they are extremely important providers.

  17. Caroline Melle October 17, 2015 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    Super cool. This is a great example of important below ground processes that are often overlooked due to the fact they are not readily visible.

  18. Amirtham Alexander October 17, 2015 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Amazing information and thanks for sharing.I wish to know more about your research. I am a nature educator, if I get more information, it would be great help to share with children and teachers .Once again thank you so much for this inspiration.

  19. Oscar Murga October 17, 2015 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Wonderful nature… there is soooo much to learn still… Thanks for sharing…

  20. Miriam Asata October 17, 2015 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Very interesting indeed… I am loving all of it.

  21. Charlene Wright October 17, 2015 at 4:46 pm - Reply

    Sounds like a definitive answer to the question of “If a tree falls in the forest…”

  22. Tyron Massara October 17, 2015 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    Very interesting.

  23. Dr.S.M.Jalil October 16, 2015 at 2:13 am - Reply

    It is an excellent interpretation of tree community- a basis of principle of symbiosis. Thanks

  24. Laurie Rosenberg October 13, 2015 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Not just like, LOVE!

  25. Jose Arias-Bustamante October 13, 2015 at 7:49 am - Reply

    Professor Simard’s theory inspired the movie avatar, particularly the mother trees.

  26. Gavan Thomas October 13, 2015 at 7:49 am - Reply

    Reminds me of certain forest scenes in the Avatar movie

  27. Laurence Hutchinson October 12, 2015 at 7:52 am - Reply

    Take the biggest trees from the forest, the largest fish from the seas and the biggest elephant tusks and the best species specimens from the planet and you have destroyed a knowledge network you did not even know existed. We grow are food with poisons (Rachel Carson) and call ourselves intelligent, really.

  28. hom pathak October 10, 2015 at 7:37 am - Reply

    thank you candice for your opinion in support of the internal communication among the plants as a network like internet. i hope it will be proved soon by more of the evidences will discover in this connection. as a campaigner in tree conservation, i would like to express my totally positive attitudes for your opinions. we need more researches in this perspectives.

  29. Mansour Elbabour October 7, 2015 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    I am a geographer. Very interesting indeed. Everything is connected!

  30. Chris du Plessis October 7, 2015 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    Candice, I’ve enjoyed each and everyone of the articles you have contributed that I came across,
    especially your article on plant sentience. That plants are sentient was discovered more than 80 years ago. The reason that so many, including scientists have rejected it is because it falls outside their parameters and paradigms. from my own observations and interpretations of known facts about plant life, I have come to the conclusion that there is an intelligence in plant life that we know very little about and understand less.
    Thank you Candice!

    • Candice Gaukel Andrews October 7, 2015 at 3:48 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much, Chris. It’s so good to hear from someone on “this side” of plant sentience. I do, indeed, hear plenty from the nonbelievers, that’s for sure! I very much appreciate your comment. —C.G.A.

  31. Julesh Bantia October 6, 2015 at 6:58 am - Reply

    awesome!

  32. bir bahadur October 4, 2015 at 12:05 am - Reply

    I am a professional botanist. Liked the video.Thanks

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