The science of how & why trees communicate with each other
The art of communication isn’t exclusive to humans and animals
It’s been long known that communication plays an important role in the lives of humans and animals alike. To thrive in societies, all species of living things need to be able to convey certain messages to each other to help with things like identifying threats to them or their environment, emotional connection, and even how many young they need to sustain their population.
Recent information has shown that humans and animals are not alone in using communication to keep ourselves alive and well.
What is tree communication?
Trees don’t possess the same anatomy that humans do, so they don’t exactly speak English from a voicebox deep in their throat when they’re sending messages to each other. They have an entirely unique way of letting the other trees in the area know what’s what.
Trees use a series of what are called mycorrhizal networks to help them assist each other in survival. These networks are connected by microscopic fungi along their root systems that allow the trees to warn one another of a potential drought or to share the sunlight so they all survive and thrive happily.
It even works as part of a “family system.” When an older tree is in the same network as a new sapling, that older tree will make it their duty to ensure that the younger tree is getting enough sugar to reach its full tree potential.
A true symbiotic relationship
Entire wooded areas are connected through those networks, and the communication the plants give each other isn’t designated just to trees. Fungi that live along the tree’s roots are a part of the grand scheme of things as well.
The fungal filament’s job along those roots is to keep the trees that are alive and well connected and able to send messages. In healthy forests, every single tree is connected to one another. What do the fungi get out of it? Well, they get to feed off those connections like a free lunch for doing an honest day’s work.
Need thinking space? Find peace with the thinking woodland around @cleddon_cottage!
We’re only just waking up to the power of trees – their communication with each other and how they can help us. I love to be on the edge of the Wye watching trees across the valley dance in wind https://t.co/HDD484JASr
— cleddon cottage (@cleddon_cottage) January 26, 2020
The tree gives their little fungal friends about 30 percent of the photosynthesized sugars that they get from the sunlight. This sugar then helps the fungi to have enough energy to scour the soil depths below for the other nutrients and minerals they need, such as nitrogen and phosphorus.
Why do trees communicate?
Trees need to “speak” to one another for some of the same reasons that humans and other animals do. It helps the community thrive as a whole.
For example, if a threat to the forest’s existence were to pop up on one side, the roots would send that message through the ground until every tree knew what was up. This helps the trees prepare for battle, so to speak, and protect themselves against anything that might compromise them or their community.
They are very considerate in sharing the sunlight, and their root systems are closely connected. In cases like this, when one dies, the other usually dies soon afterward, because they are dependent on each other.
Another special reason for tree communication is to spread their seed — literally. Trees want to continue their legacy as much as the next guy. They do this by communicating with one another to check on the forest around them.
Trees can then send messages across the network, along with sharing water and nutrients, allowing the trees to throw caution to the wind and let some of their seeds fly free in the hopes of spawning new offspring.
The Mother tree
Just like humans and animals, tree networks tend to have “Mother” trees, which act as the main center of the entire system. The Mother Tree is the go-to tree for passing along certain messages and managing all the information that goes through the forest.
This information can be anything from an insect threat or even how much water is needed across the network for each tree to get their own fair share.
According to one forester, the Mother Tree also has an uncanny ability to recognize which trees grew from her very own seeds. Some research has shown that she can actually play favorites among her tree children. They nurture their own just like any mother would and are usually the oldest (and biggest) trees in the forest.
Are trees conscious?
The question of whether other beings besides humans possess sentience has plagued the minds of many researchers across the world. The thinking and feeling aspect of the human condition is generally what most associate with humanity. If one can feel or have will, one is human.
The morality that goes hand-in-hand with sentience is what separates us from the rest. Research found that we were wrong about that, however, when it was discovered that many — if not most — animals are in fact feeling creatures, too.
A community of communication
But is there a chance that sentience isn’t only found in humans and animals? A German forester by the name of Peter Wohlleben says that trees are a lot more intelligent than plant scientists would like to think.
In an interview he did about his book “The Hidden Life of Trees,” he suggests that trees are highly social, intelligent beings that need to be approached differently than they have been in the past.
He also notes that trees aren’t exactly like humans or other animals when it comes to survival. Trees work together as a community, and even depend on one another when it comes to getting enough food and sunlight to continue to grow. Since the entire forest is a giant network of connectivity, tree communication is their way of ensuring the survival of the entire network, not just themselves.
Do trees possess intelligence?
The science behind whether or not trees possess a level of intelligence is sparse, with some plant scientists stating that these networks have nothing to do with the ability to experience consciousness and are more likely a true symbol of natural selection in the plant kingdom.
But when a tree falls in the forest, do other trees come to the rescue?
By the time a tree falls, it’s too late to be saved, but the other trees do their due diligence to ensure that the sick tree at risk of dying and falling over doesn’t end up on the forest bed. That appears to be a level of intelligence otherwise unheard of when it comes to trees.
How trees communicate to save one another
By sending their messages along to all the other trees in the forest, trees can create a support system for their ailing friend. They then send along the nutrients and water to the sick tree so that it can regain its health. It’s not entirely selfless, though.
When a tree dies and falls to the ground, it leaves the other trees exposed to a different kind of climate than they’re used to. When this happens, their environment becomes more hostile and in the end, threatens the life of the whole network. The trees work together to cure their sick friends so that they can all survive. They are a true community.
— Lucy Walker (@lucywalkerfilm) February 15, 2016
The dark side of tree communication
Although the forest works together symbiotically, there are some downsides to being connected that deeply. If a disease is found in one of the roots of the trees and spreads through the entire forest, the entire network could be at risk. Thus, the entire forest could become infected with a tree plague.
Also, for a baby tree to grow to its full potential, it might so happen that it needs the sunlight being used by a much bigger, older, tree. If that older tree doesn’t die a natural death soon enough, the young saplings surrounding it may not get enough of what they need to see their lives through to giant tree status, even with the network helping them out.
The mythological history of tree communication
Talking trees have been a source of wonder in many pop culture works, such as “Lord of the Rings” and “Avatar,” which leads some plant scientists to the conclusion that tree communication isn’t more than the simple act of survival for the trees in a forest.
The appearance of talking trees may have led to the idea that there is a little more intelligent design involved in the way trees communicate among their community, thus it could be more wishful thinking than scientific advancement.
It doesn’t change the fact that the way trees talk to each other and help one another through this crazy thing called life is nothing short of phenomenal. Even if they don’t communicate on a conscious level, their impressive way of surviving with each other instead of against each other deserves more open-minded research.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:
- Keep your new bonsai tree happy and healthy | Science 101
A detailed guide on how to avoid the death of yet another household plant.
- Biomimicry: How nature has inspired human innovation | Science 101
The natural world has been quite an inspiration when it comes to man’s greatest achievements.