Are trees social beings? They exchange nutrients, help one another, and communicate about pests and other environmental threats

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Credit: Riverside Club
Credit: Riverside Club

Previous ecologists had focused on what happens aboveground, but [Suzanne] Simard used radioactive isotopes of carbon to trace how trees share resources and information with one another through an intricately interconnected network of mycorrhizal fungi that colonize trees’ roots. In more recent work, she has found evidence that trees recognize their own kin and favor them with the lion’s share of their bounty, especially when the saplings are most vulnerable.

Simard’s first book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, was released by Knopf [recently]. In it, she argues that forests are not collections of isolated organisms but webs of constantly evolving relationships. Humans have been unraveling these webs for years.

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”Studies show that biodiversity leads to stability—it leads to resilience, and it’s easy to see why. Species collaborate. It’s a synergistic system. One plant has a high photosynthetic capacity, and it fuels all these soil bacteria that fix nitrogen. Then there’s this other deep-rooted plant, and it goes down and brings up water, which it shares with the nitrogen-fixing plant because that nitrogen plant needs a lot of water to carry out its activities. So suddenly the whole productivity of the ecosystem goes way up,” [said Simard].

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