“The forest is more than what you see,” ecologist Suzanne Simard beamed from the Ted stage in 2016. Simard, who has spent the last three decades studying the mechanisms that fuel our forests, then went on to demystify the “quiet, cohesive way of the woods,” explaining that trees—in many ways—are just like us.
Thanks to a complex system of minerals and chemical reactions underground, these booming beauties can actually communicate, protect their kin, and defend each other in times of need.
Simard’s research has paved the way to a new era of tree conservation and served as a beautiful reminder that, for better or for worse, all of nature is intricately connected.
The science fueling our forests
Now a professor at the University of British Columbia, Simard began her research entrenched in the forests of Canada. Convinced that trees’ root systems alluded to a secret language being spoken underground, Simard set out to prove her thesis that trees can indeed sense and respond to each other’s needs.
The process she used to do so was simple but sophisticated: She pumped radioactive gas into the base of birch, fir, and cedar trees and monitored how each one handled the excess carbon. In the end, the birch and fir trees engaged in what Simard refers to as a “lively two-way conversation”, transferring carbon to one another in different ratios throughout the year. As one tree grew, the stagnant tree passed over some extra nutrients to help fuel the process, and visa versa.
“Forests aren’t simply collections of trees. They’re complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees, allow them to communicate, and provide avenues for feedback and adaptation,” she explained during her Ted talk.
A phenomenon known as mycorrhiza, or “fungus root”, is driving this symbiotic reaction. Essentially, all trees are supported by a robust network of fungi that provide them with water and nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates formed during photosynthesis. These fungi extend underground and connect trees with their neighbors. When it’s all mapped out, this fungal network under the forest floor almost resembles a highway—weaving and dipping between the important landmarks. Larger trees are more saturated with nutrients, and therefore more “roads” lead to them.
What makes this so incredible is that the fungi serve as conduits for trees to support each other. Simard’s research out in the forest and inside the lab has found that trees can signal to each other when they need nutrients to grow, yes, but they have also been found to send sort of distress signals when they are in danger to warn others of impending threats. She’s also found that “mother” trees, older ones that are connected to hundreds of seedlings, can even recognize their own kin and send more nutrients to them, increasing the rate of seedling survival by up to four times.
Trees aren’t the only organisms that have this mycorrhizal relationship—there’s ongoing research on the connections that fuel our grasslands and other ecosystems too.
Why it matters
While this underground network is beneficial in many ways, it also speaks to the vulnerability of nature. After all, when everything is connected, disturbances tend to reverberate. When a mother tree, also known as a hub tree, dies off, the entire forest feels it.
It’s fitting that the majority of Simard’s work has been done in Canada, which has one of the highest forest disturbance rates in the world. According to the Global Forest Watch database, a living picture of deforestation around the world, the country loses an average of about 33 million hectares of canopy cover a year and gains only 9 million back. And the trend isn’t exclusive to Canada: From 2001 to 2017, the world lost 337 million hectares of tree cover, a 8.4 percent decrease.
While some of this loss is driven by industrial deforestation, rising temperatures, increasingly severe forest fires, and invasive species are also to blame. As global warming continues to alter the makeup of our planet, trees are bearing the brunt of it.
How it can drive conservation efforts
There’s a reason that Simard embraces words like “communicate”, “mother”, and “conversation”—ones that fall outside of the scientific lexicon—when referring to the secret life of trees. “We as human beings can relate to this better,” she said during an interview with Yale Environment 360. “If we can relate to it, then we’re going to care about it more. If we care about it more, then we’re going to do a better job of stewarding our landscapes.”
As her research expands to look into how forests can adapt in the face of a warming world, Simard thinks that humanizing trees will make people more likely to take steps to protect them. At the very least, she hopes that the knowledge that trees are intelligent, sophisticated, caring creatures will inspire us to immerse ourselves in nature more and more each day.
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