The Language of Trees: How do trees talk amongst one another?

By Yujean Kim

As  children, we used to envision the woods and forests as oddly magical places. By Reading numerous novels, from ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ to ‘Lord of the Rings’, a picture of talking and moving trees formed. The enchanted forests. Although this beautiful yet ‘childlike’ perception of forests slowly dwindled away with age, we revisit this ‘childlike’ imagery as we delve into the world of biology.

Similar to humans, the forest trees can talk amongst one another. As any walk in the forest will show you, trees do not verbally talk in language. Rather, they communicate together through the use of scent. We are not completely unfamiliar with this sensory as we have experienced this while using deodorants and perfume. 

A common example of where scent is used as a form of ‘language’ is seen in Acacia trees. Acacia trees are a prevalent plant species in sub-Saharan Africa, which are often fed off by giraffes. When a giraffe chews on the leaf of an Acacia tree, the tree senses pain. As a second line of defense, it produces distasteful chemicals to discourage giraffes from further consuming the tree. In addition to this, the Acacia tree emits ethylene gas to warn neighboring trees about the predator’s whereabouts. Other Acacia trees within 50 yards detect this scent and manufacture tannin in their leaves. They are not only unpleasant to consume but also poisonous to giraffes; tannin inhibits the ability to digest proteins for giraffes. Fortunately for giraffes, they have evolved and learned to not consume Acacias nearby. Instead, they move on to ones further away where there are Acacias oblivious to the warnings of the distant Acacias (Wohlleben, 2015).

Forest trees are also able to communicate amongst one another through a complex system hidden underneath the soil. This complex system is made through the symbiotic relationship between fungi and the plant. The fungi can dig deeper into the soil, therefore reach more minerals, which they provide the plant in exchange for glucose (produced from photosynthesis by the plant). 

Furthermore, the fungi lives and forms fungi filaments between other tree roots, creating a mycorrhizal network. The mycorrhizal network allows forest trees to communicate together, evident in Douglas fir and birch trees. Although it is natural to assume individual plants compete against one another to survive, the Douglas fir and birch trees oddly show collaboration. Research shows that Douglas fir and birch trees exchange nutrients to help one another out; the more nutrient deficient tree will receive more nutrients from the nutrient rich tree. Trees also seem to form a stronger relationship to their kin to ensure their survival (Toomey, 2016). 

Therefore, trees are far more social, altruistic, and collaborative organisms than  thought. This important characteristic ultimately allows individual plants to have longer lifespans. This is because, just like how a colony is more advantageous than a single ant, a forest of trees will have a higher chance of survival. A single tree will absorb more sunshine in its forest floor, over-heating the soil. Wind will penetrate a tree more vigorously without neighboring trees to stabilize it(Grant, 2018). In conclusion it is important that trees live as a colony. Watching the trees in the forest or woods is much more enchanting, magical and ‘childlike’ than we think!

References

Grant, R., 2018. Do Trees Talk To Each Other?. [online] Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-whispering-trees-180968084/&gt; [Accessed 21 August 2020].

Toomey, D., 2016. Exploring How And Why Trees ‘Talk’ To Each Other. [online] Yale E360. Available at: <https://e360.yale.edu/features/exploring_how_and_why_trees_talk_to_each_other&gt; [Accessed 21 August 2020].

Wohlleben, P., 2015. The Hidden Life Of Trees.

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