Trees have an internet all their own. Hidden deep under those tree trunks is an intricate communication system with hubs and networks. But this internet is not a place of selfies and cat videos, it’s a complex system of cooperation and sharing. Suzanne Simard, a professor and professional forester at the University of British Columbia, has been studying the way trees communicate and cooperate with each other underground for years. She recently explained how the forest internet works at a TEDSummit in June 2016.
What she has discovered in her research, and presented in her TED talk, is that trees do not exist in isolation in a forest but are connected to other trees. A forest is one entire complex organism made up of many trees working together. The forest internet is central to the functioning of this complex organism.
How does the forest internet work? It works via a system of intertwined fungal roots, called the mycelium, which connect at a cellular level to tree roots deep in the forest underground. Trees use these fungal root systems to share information with other trees and to share nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen, water, and phosphorous. These root pathways create a communication network. Using this forest internet, an older tree can recognize the needs of a younger tree in the shady understory and will send the young tree needed carbon for survival. An injured or dying tree can send its nutrients to nearby growing saplings to encourage new life and growth.
Older established hub trees, or Mother Trees, connect to hundreds of other forest trees to assist their survival. Diverse tree species will help each other. But there is an element of favouritism as well; a Mother Tree will decrease root competition for saplings of its own species and will share more carbon with its own young than the saplings of other species.
Simard explains that the forest internet is a complex system of hubs, trees and root-based communication networks that create forest resiliency by providing tree feedback mechanisms and adaptations. While a forest can withstand the removal of some hub trees, removing too many hubs from a forest system can leave the entire forest vulnerable.
Simard notes that forests have a strong ability to self-heal and rebuild. But we need to reinforce our forests and protect them by committing to conservation, building local involvement in forests, increasing biodiversity of tree types, and protecting hub trees. More people need to be involved to keep forests safe and thriving.
So, the next time you are in a forest, remember that the trees are busy communicating all around you, and you can be a part of their survival. You may not be able to hear or see their conversations, but you can safe guard and pay witness to the beautiful results.
To watch Suzanne Simard’s presentation, go to:http://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en#t-1072583