Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Maternal Instinct of Trees

Not so long ago, when you go around telling people that trees do ‘talk’ to each other, you’d be sneered at or frowned upon as if you’ve just flown over the cuckoo’s nest. But as the debate surrounding the wood wide web – a kind of underground Internet linking the roots of different plants by mycelium, a mass of thin threads that make up most of the bodies of fungus – became increasingly heated and at the same time interesting, you can’t brush off the suggestion of communication among trees so easily.

If you’re on the more liberal end of the debate, you’d want to know that Suzanne Simard, an experienced forest ecologist with three decades of research work on Canada’s forests under her belt, is suggesting that trees do recognise their offspring. This may sound a tad too nerdy on the surface, but let’s hear her out.

“Now, we know we all favour our own children, and I wondered, could Douglas fir recognise its own kin, like mama grizzly and her cubs? So we set about an experiment, and we grew mother trees with kin and stranger’s seedlings. And it turns out they do recognise their kin. Mother trees colonise 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 neighbouring seedlings, not only carbon but also defence signals. And these two compounds have increased the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses. So trees talk.”

And that is that: trees talk.

Intrigued and curious to find out more? The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben might prove to be an eye-opener. 

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