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Do Trees Talk? Discover the Mysterious Language of Plants!

Do Trees Talk? Discover the Mysterious Language of Plants!

We come across talking trees in movies or books. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Ents are old creatures who can communicate with each other. Or the Groot we see in Guardians of the Galaxy can even speak although he only says “I’m Groot!”. So, is this fictional situation possible in real life? Could the trees in the forest be speaking a language we do not know?


Talking Tree Example
Treebeard – The Lord of the Rings
Image Source: ign.com

 

Talking Tree Example
Groot – Guardians of the Galaxy
Image Source: Pinterest

Let me introduce you to the oldest community in the world: Forests. Even before we humans existed on earth, this community already existed and they had a secret communication network.

Hidden Heroes of This Network: Mushrooms

Yes, when we say mushrooms, most of us think of red-hatted creatures, the home of the Smurfs. But the red hat is just the tip of the iceberg. Under the ground, there is an extraordinary communication network called the “mycelium”.

Fungi can attach to many trees thanks to this root-like structure. Trees can also talk to each other, exchange information, and even wage war using this mycelium network. Because of its similarity to the Internet network, this network is called the “wood wide web, referring to the “world wide web” (www) term used for the Internet. Yes, just like the internet has a dark web, sometimes there can be dark sides in the communication of trees. And they can use this network to wage war, poison, or destroy each other. I will come back to this topic at the end of the article.

mycelium
Structure of Mushroom and Mycelium Network
Image Source: Fikir.gen.tr (modified)

So how does this mysterious network work?

The scientist Suzanne Simard, who discovered this mushroom web, and her team conduct an experiment in the forest. This experiment examines two trees and a fungus attached to those trees. Suzanne Simard gives radioactive carbon to one of these trees and covers the other tree completely so that it does not receive any light. A tree that cannot receive light cannot photosynthesize and produce the nutrients necessary for its survival. The reason for using radioactive carbon is to easily observe the carbon movement. When you bring a measuring device called Geiger counter to a radioactive material, a “kikkh” sound is heard and the movement of the material can be easily observed. In other words, in this experiment, the Geiger counter was used as a sensor to detect motion.

After a while, Simard takes her Geiger counter and goes to the covered tree. And then she meets that awesome voice: Kikkh. There could only be one explanation for this. The trees must have talked among themselves. The helpful tree on the left must have used the mushroom network and sent its carbons to the helpless tree on the right.

It’s like the poor tree was like, “Hey man, a maniac just covered me, if you have any extra carbon, can you send it?” and the helpful one said, “Don’t say another word, my friend, I’m sending it right away”.

network fungi

Does this network only connect two trees?

No, the study by the same scientists shows that a large tree in a forest that consists of 100 trees can communicate with an average of 47 different trees. This also means that 47% of the connection in the forest are lost if large trees, or mother trees, are cut unconsciously.

Therefore, situations such as forest fires or inadvertent logging can affect other trees and ultimately result in the destruction of the entire forest.


fungi network

network tree

Why Are Mushrooms Courier?

Fungi play an indispensable role in the communication of trees. Maybe this question has come to your mind: Why do mushrooms help trees? Is this takeaway business completely free?

No. Fungi are good at extracting valuable minerals from the soil, but they cannot photosynthesize, meaning they cannot produce their own food. Trees, on the other hand, are very successful in producing their own food. For this reason, trees give some of the nutrients they produce to fungi in exchange for this courier service. Fungi also give the excess minerals in the soil to the trees and undertake the task of communication between them. In other words, there is a mutualistic exchange between trees and fungi, in which both sides are satisfied.

Is Communication Possible Without a Mushroom Network?

Okay, we learned that communication is possible in the forest using fungi. But can plants in separate environments without fungi also talk? For example, consider two plants in separate pots.

These plants can communicate by secreting chemicals. Plants can send some stimuli to their environment through various chemical gases. For example, when a plant is bitten by an insect, it releases chemical gases to alert other plants around it. In this way, the other plant, which makes itself ready for attack, is not caught off-guard, and its chance of survival increases.

Plant Communication
Communication with Chemicals
Image Source: Plant Communication Review

Solitude is a Choice!

So far, we have seen cases where plants always help each other in communication. But a forest does not always live in brotherhood. Some trees choose solitude. As I mentioned earlier, some trees also have a dark side.

Maybe you’ve heard the saying: If you sleep under a walnut tree, you will be poisoned.” While this is not quite true for us humans, it is certainly true for plants. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to observe a walnut tree, you’ve noticed that there are usually no other plants around.

The reason for this is that the walnut tree releases sulfur gas. Thanks to the sulfur gas, it prevents the growth of the surrounding plants and kills the new ones. In this way, they benefit more from the opportunities around them, which are necessary for their own life.

While this may seem like a completely cruel act, it actually has only one goal: to survive. Because having fewer opponents around means an increased chance of survival.

Walnut Tree image
Walnut Tree

As we can see, under the trees, which stand silent and wise, lies a huge communication network provided by mushrooms. From time to time, they can talk to each other through this network and in the language of chemicals.

Let’s end this article with the words of Leonardo Da Vinci: “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects everything else.”

Let’s change our perspective…

References and Further Readings

Simard, S., Perry, D., Jones, M. et al. Net transfer of carbon between ectomycorrhizal tree species in the field. Nature 388, 579–582 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/41557

Ueda, H., Kikuta, Y., & Matsuda, K. (2012). Plant communication: mediated by individual or blended VOCs?. Plant signaling & behavior, 7(2), 222–226. https://doi.org/10.4161/psb.18765

Willams, R., Cheung, D., Simard, S.W., Beiler, K.J., Defrenne, C. (2018). Talking trees National Geographic 233 (6): 26.

You can reach the source of the images used by clicking on the image.

The proofreading has been done by Asu Pelin Akköse and Mete Esencan.

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Mete Esencan

Hello everyone! I'm Mete Esencan. I am a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at METU. I was planning to establish a platform by combining the research knowledge I gained during my basic science education and the management experience I gained in the METU Chemistry Society, which I was in charge of for three years. For this purpose, in February of 2021, I took the first step and established the OkButWhy, a platform where we can write articles as if to chat about science, art and philosophy. I wish everyone a pleasant reading!

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