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The Secret life of trees

Think trees don't communicate? Think again. This is the secret and complicated underground life of trees.

The Secret life of trees

“A forest is much more than what you see,” says ecologist Suzanne Simard.

Her 30 years of research in Canadian forests have led to an astounding discovery — trees talk, often and over vast distances.

Suzanne has summarised her findings about the complicated lives of trees in a TED talk, in which she tells the audience she’d like to change the way we think about forests.

“You see, underground there is this other world, a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it’s a single organism. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

Suzanne Simard is a professor of forest ecology and teaches at the University of British Columbia.

She has shown how trees communicate with other trees – more specifically, using radioactive carbon she measured the flow and sharing of carbon between individual trees and species. “The evidence was clear,” she says, in her talk. “The C-13 and C-14 was showing me that paper birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation. It turns out … in the summer, that birch was sending more carbon to fir than fir was sending back to birch, especially when the fir was shaded.”

“And then in later experiments, we found the opposite, that fir was sending more carbon to birch than birch was sending to fir, and this was because the fir was still growing while the birch was leafless. So it turns out the two species were interdependent, like yin and yang.

“And at that moment, everything came into focus for me. I knew I had found something big, something that would change the way we look at how trees interact in forests, from not just competitors but to cooperators. And I had found solid evidence of this massive below ground communications network, the other world.”

Simard has also helped identify something called a hub tree, or “mother tree.”

Mother trees are the largest trees in the forest, and support seedlings by infecting them with fungi and supplying them the nutrients they need to grow.

She also found that Douglas Firs nurture their young, sending more carbon to baby firs that came from that specific mother tree, than random baby firs not related to that specific fir tree.

It was also found that mother trees change their root structure to make room for baby trees.

Forests aren’t simply collections of trees, they’re complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect species – allowing them to communicate. They provide avenues for feedback and adaptation, and this makes the forest resilient.

She adds that her research could also be used to combat and understand the effects of climate change on our forest systems: “We need to get out in the forest, and reestablish local involvement in our own forests. We need to save our old-growth forests, the repositories of genes and mother trees and mycorrhizal networks.

“So this means less cutting. I don’t mean no cutting, but less cutting.”

“When we do cut, we need to save the legacies, the mother trees and networks, so they can pass their wisdom onto the next generation of trees so they can withstand the future stresses coming down the road. We need to regenerate our forests with a diversity of species and genotypes and structures by planting and allowing natural regeneration.

“We have to give Mother Nature the tools she needs to use her intelligence to self-heal. And we need to remember that forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other, they’re supercooperators.”

Watch the incredible TED Talk below.

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