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WOOD WIDE WEB

Did you know that plants could talk too? We -humans- need to communicate, share information, warn each other, ask things we don’t know… But our need for communication comes from the desire to socialize. However, plants seem to talk with the aim of surviving in the wild. But they use a different way because they can’t communicate like us, by making sounds. Let’s take a closer look at how trees can communicate!


First I’ll explain how this situation has been proven. Suzanne Simard -an ecologist- experimented with this topic. She put 80 replicates in a forest. She used only two of them from different species to see if there was a connection between the two -birch and fir-.


She got syringes full of radioactive carbon-14 carbon dioxide gas and some high-pressure bottles of stable isotope carbon-13 carbon dioxide gas. She put plastic bags over the trees.

For the birch she injected carbon-14 -the radioactive one- and carbon-13 for the fir.

She waited about an hour so the trees would take the carbon dioxide and use it. She went to the first bag -the birch- She ran her Geiger counter -it’s an electronic device used for detecting and measuring ionizing radiation- over its leaves and suddenly heard a sound “Khhhh” which means the tree had taken up the radioactive carbon gas.

Now it was time for the truth she went to fir, used her machine and heard the same sound! It was the sound of communication between those trees! Then she checked all 80 replicates and it was clear that fir and birch were having a two-way communication.

This is the moment when she proved that there is a wide network lying under the ground. But how?

Plants collaborate with fungi and create a wide network under the soil. Together, the fungi and roots form structures known as mycorrhizae which is a mutualistic symbiosis.

Mycorrhizae increase the host plants’ ability to absorb water and nutrients through their roots.

In return, the plants share sugars that they produce through photosynthesis with their fungal partners. This trade connects fungi and plants so strongly that they depend on each other to survive. But fungi are not content with just one plant so they form mycelium which acts like roots. But they have a different and important role, mycelium infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants which enables them to link multiple plants in a huge functioning network in which plants can trade nitrogen, phosphorus, water, hormones, and even messages including information and defense signals.

For example, if they’re attacked, they can release chemical signals through their roots which can warn their neighbors to raise their defenses. This network is so crowded that there can be hundreds of kilometers of mycelium under a single footstep; thus it’s nicknamed as Wood Wide Web.

This crowded and complicated picture you see is a diagram of the Wood Wide Web.

The circles represent the Douglas fir and the lines represent the fungal pathways. The biggest darkest nodes are the busiest nodes which are called hub trees or mother trees.

They’re called mother because it turns out that hub trees nurture their young. The yellow circles are young seedlings that are a part of the hub tree’s network.

A single mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees. This situation has a key role in young trees’ development and health because mother trees send their excess carbon to the young trees. It’s proven that this little help increased seedling survival by four times!

Also, they found that mother trees can recognize their kin and favor them. Mother trees colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send more carbon and nutrition to them. Moreover, when mother trees are dying they send messages, their wisdom, and information to the next generation of seedlings.

Shortly, a forest is much more than we see. They may not talk, move, or live like us but it’s clear that they’re intelligent and talented enough to build a jaw-dropping network under a single footstep. Next time you step on the ground, remember what kind of world lies beneath you!

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