THE WOOD WIDE WEB

August 12, 2016:

"If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might. If they screamed all the time for no good reason" Jack Handey, Deep Thoughts, 1992.

Humorist Jack Handey probably wasn't aware that recently we've discovered that trees do scream, in a manner of speaking, and communicate and share in other ways. This isn't some new age, drum circle, tree hugging crap, this is now hard science. Over the past three decades, research has been showing that plants (not just trees) can communicate to other plants (even species not their own) both aboveground and below ground.

Aboveground, research has found that some plants ( and probably a whole lot as current research is just scratching the surface) communicate distress, which is usually an insect or herbivore animal feeding on them. They do so by emitting an odorous complex of compounds called VOC's, or volatile organic compounds. Other plants sense these VOC's and in turn may generate more of their own chemical compounds internally that are repellent or toxic to herbivores. As omnivores, we have some passing familiarity with some of these compounds such as: nicotine, caffeine, cocaine, morphine, quinine, menthol, camphor, cannabinoids and a gob of others. The level of these compounds can fluctuate in plants dependent upon the threat level the plant senses.

In addition to internally manufacturing defensive chemicals, some plants will also emit their own VOC's that either repel herbivores (usually insects) or attract the predators of the insect attacking them. The plant version of a mace/rape whistle.

Oddly enough, the unburned fuel from car tailpipes also produce VOC's which contribute to increased ozone. While clean air laws have lowered VOC induced ozone in some places, trees have increased their VOC induced ozone. Go figure. I can't.

How plants communicate underground is a newer discovery and it relates to plants in communities, or for the purpose of this article, trees in a forest community. The roots of forest trees can extend many times beyond the crown of the tree, so they are in the close proximity to the roots of many other trees and plants. What really connects all these individual plant roots is a group of fungi called mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae colonize the roots of plants and live symbiotically. They obtain food from their host and in turn they extend the roots exposure and ability to absorb water and nutrients.

These fungi form a vast interconnected web with tree roots which has been dubbed "The Wood Wide Web" . Trees have been found to communicate distress situations similar to aboveground VOC's. What is really amazing is that this WWW has been found to be a pipeline by which other trees will share food resources, both with their same species and . . . with other species. So contrary to the long held Darwinistic belief that it's the survival of the fittest in jungle or forest, it's instead appearing to be more like a peace and love commune.

One forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard, has identified what are called "Mother Trees". These are larger older trees in a forest that act as the nexus points of the wood wide web. When they are cut down, it's like when a computer server goes down. Resource (in this case carbon) sharing ends and it substantially lowers the survival rate of younger trees in their proximity. It may argue for a whole different perspective on forest management.

All this talk about plants talking and screaming and sharing that makes me and others feel all warm and fuzzy might help people be aware of how truly amazing trees (and plants) are, but it may not be helpful in truly understanding. As one forest ecologist says, we need to stop anthropomorphizing plants and start phytomorphizing ourselves to understand them. . . .I gotta go look that up.

F & P