How Trees Communicate

            The Marion Natural History Museum is one of those rare places where we may pause, study an aspect of our natural world in a meaningful unhurried manner, and contemplate the importance of all life, not just our own.

            That was just the case on August 20 when Ph.D. candidate Valentina Lagomarsino, who studies biological and biomedical sciences at Harvard Medical School, gave a presentation on emerging concepts of how trees communicate with their surroundings and with other trees.

            Lagomarsino began by explaining, in the briefest and most simplistic terms for the benefit of her audience, the neuropathways in the human body, her main topic of academic pursuit. But she has come to believe that when human neuropathways are compared and contrasted to processes employed by trees, there are consistencies that cannot be denied.

            One of those consistencies, Lagomarsino pointed out, is that a tree’s ability to survive is also dependent upon its ability to communicate with the natural environment surrounding it beneath the surface, a system called the mycorrhizal network. This network is made up of fungal cells that help to regulate water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals that trees require.

            Some scientists call the mycorrhizal network the “Wood Wide Web.” The tongue-in-cheek label alludes to a web of fungi spreading messages from one tree to the next. Lagomarsino also said that some researchers find convergent evolution, the process whereby distantly-related organisms independently evolve similar traits in order to adapt to similar needs, are present.

            Lagomarsino told the audience that trees are the lungs of the planet and “…The carbon sinks, taking on greenhouse gases.”

            Of researchers working to better understand the communication capabilities and necessities of trees, Lagomarsino named Peter Wohlleben, who has worked for over 20 years for the forestry commission in Germany, and Dr. Suzanne Simard, a professor with the University of British Columbia who earned her Ph.D. in Forest Sciences at Oregon State University. Wohlleben wrote “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate” in 2015, and Simard published “Finding yhe Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest” this year.

            Another source found on the topic is an article authored by Richard Grant and published in the March 2018 issue of Smithsonian magazine. Grant writes of his time in a forest with Wohlleben. One surprising moment in the article reads, “Once, [Wohlleben] came across a gigantic beech stump in this forest, four or five feet across. The tree was felled 400 or 500 years ago, but scraping away the surface with his penknife, Wohlleben found something astonishing: the stump was still green with chlorophyll. There was only one explanation. The surrounding beeches were keeping it alive by pumping sugar to it through the network. ‘When beeches do this, they remind me of elephants,’ he says. ‘They are reluctant to abandon their dead, especially when it’s a big, old, revered matriarch.’”

            Simard’s characterization of certain trees as “mother trees” is also discussed in the article. Grant writes, “Mother trees are the biggest, oldest trees in the forest with the most fungal connections. They’re not necessarily female, but Simard sees them in a nurturing, supportive, maternal role. With their deep roots, they draw up water and make it available to shallow-rooted seedlings. They help neighboring trees by sending them nutrients, and when the neighbors are struggling, mother trees detect their distress signals and increase the flow of nutrients accordingly.” That sounds like a mother for sure.

            Lagmarsino’s interest in the topic of tree communication was intriguing and inspirational, causing one to think about the life of trees that surround us in the Tri-Town area in a far more personal way, mixed with a sense of ‘There is so much more to learn.’ Yes, the Marion Natural History Museum is a rare space where one may explore the learning continuum regardless of one’s age.

            Visit to learn more about programming for children and adults.

By Marilou Newell

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