HOW DO TREES COMMUNICATE?

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Have you ever been to a thick forest and felt something magical like trees making noises or communicating with each other as if they are talking about your unauthorised access to their territory? Or like the spirit of nature trying to say something? What do you think? Is it just your superstitious sense and the dark, gloomy forest or do trees really talk? The answer is yes, trees do talk for real. But this talking is not done with words like us; it is more subtle and basic. Nonetheless, they talk!

Wood-wide web

Scientists have been trying to figure out how the trees communicate, since they found that trees form interdependent, more complex networks in forests just like insect colonies. The secret of tree-communication, as discovered recently, is the network called Wood-wide web. It is basically a network of fungi which connects trees with each other in the manner which internet connects all its users.  This network of fungi that connects with roots, often known as wood-wide web, is scientifically called as mycorrhizal networks. These fungi, which lack chlorophyll can’t photosynthesise, penetrate soil and fetch nutrients needed by trees. They exchange these nutrients for sugary products of photosynthesis creating a symbiotic relationship. The amazing thing is that these fungi identify different levels of nutrient needs of the trees and cater accordingly.

As this network connects all the trees and plants of a particular forest, it allows inter-tree communication also. So, once a tree detects a possible threat or a danger, it emits some sort of a chemical to this fungi network to be delivered to the other trees. Thus the other trees adapt to the oncoming danger beforehand. Moreover, once the network recognises a weak or dying tree, other trees would send nutrients to recover it. Also, the scientists have recognised hub-trees or mother-trees which are not necessarily female ones functioning as central individuals and supervise the growth of young and small trees sending required nutrients through the wood-wide web.

Chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals

Scientists who have dedicated their lives to study about trees, have deciphered that the trees communicate with other trees using a system of slow pulsing electrical signals based on voltage different differences which is virtually similar to our neuron system (although it does not suggest that trees have brains or neurons). The main concerns of this tree-communication seem to be alert and distress but who knows what else. Also, Monica Gagliano at the University of Western Australia has gathered evidence to demonstrate that some plants can emit and detect numerous sounds, in particular, a crackling noise in the roots at a frequency of 220 hertz, inaudible to humans.

Synonymously there are evidences to prove that trees communicate using various chemicals too. The umbrella-crown thorn acacia found in dusty savannas of sub-Saharan Africa is a classic example for this. Once a giraffe starts eating its leaves this acacia emits a distress signal in the form of ethylene gas, which is detected by neighbouring acacia trees. So they start to pump tannins into the leaves which, if consumed in large enough quantities, can weaken or even kill large herbivores. This explains the reason for giraffes walking 100 yards ahead, the distance which ethylene gas can travel without wind support, before eating the next acacia.

The trees can also sense with their leaves, the scientists mention. There are several varieties of trees which can detect deer saliva. So if a deer starts to bite it, the tree would produce a chemical which is toxic and pump into the leaves, but when a branch is cut or broken, it would produce healing chemicals instead.

So, you see that trees are much more intelligent and communal than we have ever imagined and we don’t know what wonders are yet to be discovered in future regarding trees and their behavioural patterns.

By Induwara Athapattu