The Dark Web of Mycorrhizal Networks - West Wind Hardwood

Dr. Suzanne Simard has proven trees communicate. Dr. Simard is a professor of forest ecology; teaching at the University of BC (UBC). As a biologist, she has tested theories about how trees communicate with other trees. Currently, she involved with the Mother Tree project investigating forest renewal practices that will protect biodiversity, carbon storage and forest regeneration in our changing climate.

Mother trees are the largest trees in forests that act as central hubs for vast below-ground mycorrhizal networks. A mother tree supports seedlings by infecting them with fungi and supplying them with the nutrients they need to grow.

Research has shown that beneath every forest and wood there is a complex underground web of roots, fungi and bacteria helping to connect trees and plants to one another. Scientists have now nicknamed this network “the wood-wide web” in its very similar structure to the internet. This web is a highway of information for forests to communicate, cooperate, warn and share with each other.

Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and a writer with a background in plant sciences, microbiology, ecology, and the history and philosophy of science. He received a Ph.D. in tropical ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama.

Dr. Sheldrake recently published a book entitled Entangled Life: How fungi make our world, change our minds and shape our futures. The ancestors of plants could not have moved from the water onto the land some 500 million years ago without striking up a relationship with fungi. Today, nearly all plants depend on the symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi that live in their roots.

Epping Forest, a heavily regulated location outside London UK, first designated as a royal hunting ground by Henry II in the twelfth century, hosts just such a dazzling complex network; almost 6,000 acres of ‘greenwood magic’. Dr. Sheldrake says, “Whenever I need to explain my research to someone quickly, I just tell them I work on the social networks of plants”.

Forest conservation is a priority; this discovery may change the way we view our forestry methods. It’s a global concern with global research.

Through a long-term collaboration with Stanford University (USA), the Crowther Lab (Switzerland) generated the firstspatially clear map of forests showing the symbiotic status of mycorrhizal fungi networks. Thomas Crowther, one of the authors of “mycorrhizal fungi networks”, told the BBC, “It’s the first time that we’ve been able to understand the world beneath our feet, but at a global scale.”

Mycologist Dabao Sun Lu, Doctoral Research fellow at UiO’s Department of Biosciences (Oslo, Norway) hosted a Forest Excursion: Fungal Ecologies with a field excursion to the Oslo Marka (the forested and hilly areas surrounding Oslo). Discussed was “What role do fungi play in the forest’s ecosystem?” and “How does their mycorrhizal “wood-wide web” facilitate communication between plants?”

The wood wide web is just another great reason to protect our forests. These fungal information highways are connecting Mother Trees to saplings, sharing their wisdom and genetics. This is a symbiotic relationship that has developed over centuries. Douglas-fir is a real icon of BC plays a key role in transferring nutrients from their great heights to smaller saplings below through the underground network.

The Mother trees have so much to teach us. When Dennis Cronin surveyed Cutblock #7190 in 2011, did he wonder if he was saving a ‘mother’ tree? Nicknamed as “Lonely Doug”, the tree rises 230 feet to its upper branches; as high as a 23-story office tower; second only to the Red Creek Fir which grows just one valley over.

If we, as humans, relate better and care more, we’ll do a better job of stewarding our landscapes.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this excellent article and for your continued stellar work on the newsletter. I always look forward to reading it.

    Anyone who found this post of interest would probably enjoy reading, “The Overstory.” While it is a work of fiction (Pulitzer Prize winner in 2019) it explains the science of how trees communicate with one another in order to protect against disease, pests, etc. It is a beautifully written novel and great fun to read. You’ll never look at a tree the same way again.

    1. Hi Ted.
      Thanks for your kind words and your wonderful reading suggestion.  It looks to be a great read that I’ll pursue.  Have you read “Big Lonely Doug” by Harley Rustad.  Also a good ‘tree’ read.
      Best of the Season,
      Shelley

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