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Relationships, Dependencies, Conversations, and Everything in Between

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

How Underground Networks May (or May Not) Allow Trees to Communicate

If you’ve ever had trouble decoding a mess of text, slang, and emojis, imagine trying to decode the nutrient signals exchanged among networks of trees and fungi. That’s what Dr. Suzanne Simard, a professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences and a teacher at the University of British Columbia , did for her doctoral thesis: discovered that trees can use these networks, called mycorrhiza, to tell other trees about surrounding threats, to recognize relatives, and to aid other trees.

The mass of a tree is primarily carbon. During photosynthesis atmospheric carbon dioxide and water are used to convert the sun's energy into chemical energy, which is captured within the bonds of carbon molecules. In her early research, Dr. Simard used two highly recognizable kinds of carbon molecules to track the movement and effects of nutrients exchanged among the network. She traced carbon molecules sent from trees that were losing leaves in fall, to species that were still sprouting. This was her first clue.

Forming a mutually beneficial relationships through the “network”

In case you don’t know, the mycorrhizal networks are the underground networks created by fungi that connect individual plants and trees together and transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals. In exchange, the plants provide fungi with food in the form of carbohydrates. These networks are likely crucial to the survival of many ecosystems as they face environmental threats and adapt to climate change.

In her later research, Dr. Simard found that stress signals from one tree initiated increased production of defense enzymes in another nearby species, using the mycorrhizal network. She then found that trees can favor those related to them as nutrient-recipients and that a declining tree can rid much of its carbon into the network for other trees before it dies. In this way, trees support one another. They are not just a collection of individuals but a community that is there for one another. Dr. Simard calls these two-way signals and responses communication.

Is this really communication?

Although Dr. Simard’s findings have been replicated by many, some scientists question the extent to which she personifies this relationship, especially to the general public. These scientists believe calling it “communication” is misleading and argue that there is no evidence that these signals are intentional. Indeed, communication is a strong word for the degree of interdependence her findings demonstrate. However, it doesn't really matter what we call it. There is a connection, and we cannot ignore it.

Scientists since Darwin have emphasized the competitive, not cooperative, character of nature in an every-species-for-itself wilderness. However, the interaction that Dr. Simard’s observed shows why forests are so resilient. The loss of one or a few trees is not fatal to the entire forest, because these trees share their resources with those that survive.

Machakos, Kenya

Just like the trees Dr. Simard studied, humans support each other with conscious and unconscious communication, and we’re often stronger together than a collection of individuals. At 1treellion, we took this to the next level by creating strong relationships for the benefit of trees and people.

One of our tree planting initiatives took place at a rural village in Kenya. It soon became a clear demonstration of mutually dependent relationships like the one Dr. Simard discovered.

It started with an organization called Kenya Connect installing compost toilets, which prevent contamination of the local underground water, almost two years ago. Then, early last year 1treellion funded a tree planting project in the community. These trees depend on nutrients from the compost to aid in normal functions and growth.

Then handwashing stations were added to aid in keeping the community healthy. All the water from these stations is recycled back to the trees to help them grow in the arid environment.

The community provides resources the trees need to flourish, but it’s not a one-way relationship.

Not only do the trees contribute to climate stability in the region, as all of our projects do, the trees also provide shade and nutrients to the community. The leaves can be cut, dried and grinded into powder, which is often added to tea or food to aid in immunity.

We know this relationship is not built on explicit communication. It is a system of interdependent individual systems that function as a whole for greater strength. It’s a community of people and a community of trees coming together to build a mutually beneficial relationship. Communication as we know it is a part of human relationships, but it is not the only part. Much like the mycorrhizal networks, their system is also based on signals and responses that are widely understood due to a lifetime of experiences with one another.

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