05 August 2016

Trees Share Information in the Forest

Treehugger.com has an interesting article about how trees talk to each other, recognize their own offspring and communicate their own distress. Here's the link to the entire piece with an 18-minute TED talk on the topic by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.

In fact, they form their own ancient internet. "While it's not news that a variety of communication happens between non-human elements of the natural world, the idea of mycelia (the main body of fungi, as opposed to the more well-known fruiting bodies - mushrooms) acting as a sort of old-school planetary internet is still a fairly recent one, and may serve as a spore of a new breed of forestry, ecology, land management"

"A recent talk at TEDSummit 2016 by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard seems to put the lie to the idea that a forest is merely a collection of trees that can be thought of as fully independent entities, standing alone even while surrounded by other trees and vegetation. As Simard, who has put in about three decades of research work into Canada's forests, puts it, "A forest is much more than what you see."

Simard said, "While it's not news that a variety of communication happens between non-human elements of the natural world, the idea of mycelia (the main body of fungi, as opposed to the more well-known fruiting bodies - mushrooms) acting as a sort of old-school planetary internet is still a fairly recent one, and may serve as a spore of a new breed of forestry, ecology, land management."

Paul Stamets famously posited that "mycelia are Earth's natural Internet," and a variety of research has borne out that concept, but like many things we can't see an obvious connection between, most of us tend to ignore the micro in favor of the macro. And when it comes to conservation and natural resources, our systems may be falling prey to the lure of reductionist thinking, with a tree being considered merely a commodity in the forest, which can be replaced simply by planting another tree. In fact, many reforestation efforts are considered successful when a large number of trees are replanted in areas where clearcutting has rendered large tracts of land treeless, even if those replanted trees are essentially turning a once diverse forest into a monocropped 'farm' of trees."
A recent talk at TEDSummit 2016 by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard seems to put the lie to the idea that a forest is merely a collection of trees that can be thought of as fully independent entities, standing alone even while surrounded by other trees and vegetation. As Simard, who has put in about three decades of research work into Canada's forests, puts it, "A forest is much more than what you see."
"Now, we know we all favor our own children, and I wondered, could Douglas fir recognize its own kin, like mama grizzly and her cub? So we set about an experiment, and we grew mother trees with kin and stranger's seedlings. And it turns out they do recognize their kin. Mother trees colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings. So we've used isotope tracing to trace carbon moving from an injured mother tree down her trunk into the mycorrhizal network and into her neighboring seedlings, not only carbon but also defense signals. And these two compounds have increased the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses. So trees talk." 

So, the next time you are out among the trees see if you can spot the offspring of nearby trees and see how they accommodate each others' needs.

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