Whispering of Trees

whispering of trees

Earth is home to over one billion trees, representing over 60,000 distinct species. Trees have been around for about 400 million years. They have survived all five catastrophic extinctions that happened during that period. Trees serve as the basis of the forest and they are much more than what you see. While you may see the birds and squirrels filling the trees with sound, there is a whispering of trees happening right beneath your feet. You cannot hear it, but the forest is whispering.

The secret of trees

For years, the concept of “talking trees” has fascinated people.  Although trees do not talk to humans, they communicate with each other. A huge and linked network of fungi connects the trees through their root systems under the earth. Underground, a world of infinite biological pathways connects trees. This allows the forest to behave as though it is a single organism. The network of fungi surrounds and penetrates the roots and supports the soaring trunks above. 
 Trees are capable of living for thousands of years if they receive water and sunlight to create their source of food. The underground fungus spreads through the soil. Then, it absorbs nutrients and water from the soil and transports them to its plant hosts. In exchange, the plants provide their fungal partners with 4–20% of photosynthetic carbon. This reciprocal relationship is the foundation of all forests. It enables life to exist on Earth. This network is called the Wood Wide Web, and it ties the trees in the forest together.

Indeed, the trip begins far above the earth, in the leaves of the highest trees. These tallest trees are referred to as “ hub trees” or “mother trees” due to their role in nurturing young seedlings. Their leaves utilize abundant sunlight to produce carbohydrates through photosynthesis. Then, the substances that plants need to develop flow through the underground fungal network. It moves from areas of higher concentration to areas of lower concentration. Hence, though trees seem like individuals with no contact with their neighbors, they are connected through their root systems.

whispering of trees
whispering of trees

Importance of trees’ communication

These networks do not serve only the purpose of carbon, nutrient, and water exchange. Recently, scientists have realized that the relationship is not just between individual trees and their fungi. But, there is a connection between the trees themselves. This hidden network exchanges resources, sends data, and conveys knowledge. Also, stressed or diseased trees can benefit from the health of their neighbors.  
The whole process starts with hub trees. Hub trees receive more sunlight, leading to the production of excess carbon. Thus, a mother tree has the largest network and can be linked to hundreds of other trees. Additionally, a mother tree can tell if her seedlings are her relatives or strangers. She sends more carbon to family members than she does to strangers. Furthermore, if the mother tree is injured, she delivers even more carbon to her seedling offspring. It is as though she’s passing on her energy and legacy to the next generation. Astonishingly, trees possess qualities beyond what we can see. 

Early work behind trees’ communication

The concept that trees may engage in resource sharing challenges the traditional belief that trees evolved through competition. Traditionally, people believed that trees grow taller to access more light and water. Thus, shorter trees do not survive due to shading or limited water supply. If trees were to share resources, this would require scientists to re-examine their understanding of how trees evolved.
The early work behind resource sharing of trees traces back to 1885. The German botanist, Albert Bernard Frank, proposed the notion that plant roots and the surrounding fungi were collaborating. This idea was skepticism at the time. Yet, over the last century, Frank’s major hypotheses have been decisively confirmed. It is now understood that plant-fungal relationship associations are prevalent in all ecosystems, from deserts to tropical forests. And that around 90% of land-based plants are connected to fungal networks. 


Further studies

Later, scientists planted some pines next to each other in a study in the 1980s. Then, their roots were inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi to create an underground network. The researchers tagged the photosynthetic carbon produced by the donor pine with radioactive carbon by sealing one plant in a box with radioactive CO2. The plant absorbed it and converted it into radioactive sugars. They then placed photographic film over the root box to see if the radioactive particles traveled from one plant to the other. The film showed that the particles traveled through the fungal network, going from one tree to the other.
Furthermore, a team of researchers used DNA analysis to understand the relationships in a Canadian forest. They found that one hub tree connected to 47 other trees through a fungal network. Hence, the removal of hub trees would result in losing more connections compared to randomly removing trees. The study of these underground exchanges will be crucial in creating more robust and resilient forests in the future.
whispering of trees

                                  “There is nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend.”      Bob Ross


Call to action!

As trees can communicate about potential threats through their fungal networks, this can trigger neighboring trees to boost their production of defensive enzymes. Hence, the well-being of the forest is dependent on these intricate communication and information exchanges. On the other hand, forest fires are causing chaos on our planet, with over 10% of the world’s forests being affected annually. Gaining an understanding of the interconnected networks of trees could potentially reveal key insights that would aid in the battle against the global climate crisis and wildfires. It is important to provide the natural world with the necessary resources so it can utilize its innate intelligence to recover.
whispering of trees

Why trees are not informing us?

In response to this question, we came across the idea of the Forest Guard (KOZALAK) as a wearable technology for trees. In a technologically advanced society, we can create a network of internet-connected physical objects that can share information. Trees can transmit messages just like the internet, which connects half of the world’s population through an invisible web of servers, computers, and devices. KOZALAK is an early wildfire detection system that creates an IoT network among trees. Modules of Kozalak are put on trees using flexible straps and they detect the fire by evaluating sudden temperature rises, CO2 levels, humidity levels, and gas classification. Then, they transfer data across the forest using the LoRaWAN networking protocol which allows for long-range communication with low power consumption by utilizing the LoRa technology. Accordingly, trees pass along their sensor measurements to each other until reaching a mesh gateway that sends all data to our online database. In the case of any abnormal condition, authorized personnel will be alerted immediately, and wildfires can be detected and controlled in their early phases.

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