Do trees communicate? Networks, networks…

UBC Professor Suzanne Simard on Mother Trees.

I was unfamiliar with how mycorrhizal networks connect the roots of trees, facilitating the sharing of resources. Dr. Suzanne Simard writes:

Graduate student Kevin Beiler has uncovered the extent and architecture of this network through the use of new molecular tools that can distinguish the DNA of one fungal individual from another, or of one tree’s roots from another. He has found that all trees in dry interior Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) forests are interconnected, with the largest, oldest trees serving as hubs, much like the hub of a spoked wheel, where younger trees establish within the mycorrhizal network of the old trees. Through careful experimentation, recent graduate Francois Teste determined that survival of these establishing trees was greatly enhanced when they were linked into the network of the old trees.Through the use of stable isotope tracers, he and Amanda Schoonmaker, a recent undergraduate student in Forestry, found that increased survival was associated with belowground transfer of carbon, nitrogen and water from the old trees. This research provides strong evidence that maintaining forest resilience is dependent on conserving mycorrhizal links, and that removal of hub trees could unravel the network and compromise regenerative capacity of the forests.

Love this representation by Beiler of one of these networks:

Serendipity alert: I just finished reading John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce, a remarkable story combining bizarre psychology, ecology and history. Dr. Simard figures in the book briefly (as she worked with Grant Hadwin when she was a student). There is a propagated genetic copy of the destroyed spruce at UBC’s Botanical Garden. Daniel Mosquin has a photo and write-up on the wonderful blog that he has maintained for the Botanical Garden for years now.

158 thoughts on “Do trees communicate? Networks, networks…

  1. Great, so they are also into hypo-media? (sorry, couldnt resist).

    Speaking of which, do you have any examples of narrative network analysis (i.e. networks of narrative ‘bits’), and how they make sense in a network of associations. I am working on ‘nested narratives’, and am keen to try out some ideas in this area.

    1. Roy – need I demand an apology for “nested narratives” as well?

      I don’t think I can be of much assistance, though that sounds like a very cool direction… I’ll be reading and clicking.

      1. Hello Brian,

        Do you know by any chance whether any researchers specifically have been looking into the parallels between neural networks and mycorrhizal networks? I’d be interested in doing research in that field myself… or at least look into it more deeply.

        Best,

        Pat

        1. Pat,
          there are many studies that discuss commonalities in the network architectures of complex systems, but as far as I know none comparing mycorrhizal and neural networks per se. The work of Albert-László Barabási is a good place to start.

          Brian, thanks for sharing this!

          1. KB,
            thanks for your comment! Apparently Prof. Simard herself might publish a new article on complex systems herself soon…

            Very off topic: wouldn’t it be possible to construct an algorithm to compare the proportions of neurons and trees (and the number of nodes where each one branches off into dendrites/branches)? I often think both of them (trees and neurons) look so similar that it can’t be coincidental… maybe a stupid idea but hey… just curious what you’re thinking about this.

    1. Jim… I am one with the great tree, Luna. Laugh if you will, and I know you will… and the industrial world laughs with you… but know that the remnants and ghostly traces of the consumed forest envelop us all in its own all-consuming embrace.

      Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

  2. This is great research that, oddly enough, is relevant to a video game design I’ve been working on for years.

  3. Hey, everything she said could have come from the sci-fi movie “Avatar.” 500-year-old Mother trees thinking with their heritage, until the nasty humans obliterate that heritage by clearcutting & environmental degradation. Cool.

  4. I’m not surprised since trees and humans are fairly close on the tree of life. In fact, they are not so distant cousins.

  5. And you get paid for this? is this another Goverment program that needs to be removed. First off, who cares and secondly, like its going to change the world in which we live, you stayed in the woods to long! Get a life!!

  6. I recommend Dr. Simard remove or otherwise cease using metaphors such as “Mother trees” — it makes it too easy to dismiss this research as some lovey-dovey hippy-dippy New Ager bullshit. Don’t make it easy to dismiss with sloppy language. It might make it easier to connect with a particular audience, but it hurts in the long run. It feminizes the forest, feminizes nature, and that just makes the forest destroyers feel more ‘manly’. It creates/perpetuates the male/female, creative/destructive binary that does not accurately depict how the forest system works or human’s role in the world.

  7. Thiew sounds like one othe scenes from Avatar when they are explaining the network thats in place in the forrest.

    Interesting read.

  8. This reminds me a little of Avatar planet where the whole planet’s life can sense each other…cool! and thanks for that link to the UBC botanical blog- heading over there now.

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