Is the Wood-Wide Web Real? Scientists Debate Whether Trees Really Talk. – The New York Times

“Justine Karst, a mycologist at the University of Alberta, feared things had gone too far when her son got home from eighth grade and told her he had learned that trees could talk to each other through underground networks.

Her colleague, Jason Hoeksema of the University of Mississippi, had a similar feeling when watching an episode of “Ted Lasso” in which one soccer coach told another that trees in a forest cooperated rather than competed for resources.

Few recent scientific discoveries have captured the public’s imagination quite like the wood-wide web — a wispy network of fungal filaments hypothesized to shuttle nutrients and information through the soil and to help forests thrive. The idea sprouted in the late 1990s from studies showing that sugars and nutrients can flow underground between trees. In a few forests, researchers have traced fungi from the roots of one tree to those of others, suggesting that mycelial threads could be providing conduits between trees.

These findings have challenged the conventional view of forests as a mere population of trees: Trees and fungi are, in fact, coequal players on the ecological stage, scientists say. Without both, forests as we know them wouldn’t exist.”

David Lindsay: My introduction to this debate came from reading “The Overstory,” by Richard Powers.  Here is one of many comments, I liked:

Hudson Valley1h ago

What is very obvious to any practicing forest ecologist is that intact, less disturbed forest communities include high levels of biodiversity and demonstrate greater resilience and resistance to disturbance (fire, wind, disease). In other words, they are healthy, robust, and living the good life. Excessively logged and disturbed forests and tree plantations show characteristics only slightly better than a suburban lawn, basically only surviving with some kind of external life support. Trying to argue that the individual trees and their mycorrhizal neighbors are in on this discussion is fun to think about, and does make for superb storytelling (thank you Richard Powers!). But the heart of this issue is not an anthropomorphic interpretation of chemical exchange between tree roots and fungi. The real issue is a political one – is nature driven more by cooperation between species, or is every individual plant and animal only out for themselves? This argument has been raging since Petr Kropotkin published “Mutual Aid” and the ecologist, Frederic Clements, demonstrated his basis for a cooperative planet in the late 1800s. The evidence leans heavily towards Clements, Kropotkin, and, now, Simard. BTW Mr Darwin also leaned in this direction, although the “I’ve got mine, so sorry for you” crowd likes to twist his comments. And this argument about how nature truly functions will play out in a planet altering way across our social sphere here in the U.S. all day tomorrow.

2 Replies70 Recommended

Jared Farmer | What the World Will Lose if Ancient Trees Die Out – The New York Times

Dr. Farmer is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees.”

Old trees are in big trouble.

Whole forests with fire-resistant giant sequoias up to 3,000 years in age have recently gone up in flames. Whole stands of drought-resistant Great Basin bristlecone pine, a species that can reach 5,000 years in age, have been sucked dry by bark beetles. Monumental baobabs, the longest-living flowering plants, buckle under the stress of drought in southern Africa. The iconic cedars of Mount Lebanon, ancient symbols of longevity, struggle in warmer, drier conditions. Millennial kauris in New Zealand and centenarian olive trees in Italy succumb to invasive diseases.

Cumulatively, this is more than a cyclical turnover. This is a great diminution: fewer megaflora (massive trees), fewer elderflora (ancient trees), fewer old-growth forests, fewer ancient species, fewer species overall.

Although Earth’s “tree cover” — three trillion plants covering roughly 30 percent of all land — has expanded of late, the canopy increasingly consists of trees planted for timber, paper pulp and cooking oil and for services such as protecting soil from wind erosion and offsetting carbon emissions. It’s young stuff. Old-growth communities are scarce and getting scarcer.

Ancient trees provide services too, but really, they are gift givers. Of all their gifts, the greatest are temporal and ethical. They inspire long-term thinking and encourage us to be sapient. They engage our deepest faculties: to revere, analyze and meditate. If we can recognize how they call upon our ethical imperative to care for them, then we should slow down climate change now, and pay forward to people who will need a future planet with chronodiversity as well as biodiversity.

Margaret Renkl | Why We Should All Be Chasing Acorns – The New York Times

Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

“Here is the sound in our family room on a windy day in October: BAM-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam. All the windy day long, it’s BAM-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam. When the barrage began a couple of weeks ago, our dog thought we were under attack. He ran between the storm door and the window, back and forth, back and forth, looking for intruders and barking his head off.

What he’s hearing are acorns dropping from the white oak tree on the other side of our house. The acorns hit the roof, bounce down the slope, crash into the metal gutter and then drop to the deck. I race outside as soon as I hear one hit, trying to beat the squirrels and the chipmunks to the oak tree’s bounty. It’s unseemly for a grown woman to be racing chipmunks for chipmunk food, but I’m collecting acorns for a good reason.

As Douglas W. Tallamy explains in his splendid 2021 book, “The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees,” oaks are keystone plants, the central life form upon which so many other species in the ecosystem depend. Hundreds of insects and caterpillars feed on oak leaves, and those insects in turn feed birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and even other insects. In fall and winter, acorns feed many of them all over again. Because so many predators eat the creatures that eat the acorns, a good year for oaks is a good year for everybody. “No other tree genus supports so much life,” Dr. Tallamy notes.”

Why Fungi Might Really Be Magic (When It Comes to Climate Change) – The New York Times

 — Toby Kiers took long strides across the spongy forest floor, felt the adrenaline rush in her veins and stopped at the spot she had traveled so far to reach. Into the ground went a hollow metal cylinder. Out came a scoop of soil.

Dr. Kiers stuck her nose into the dirt, inhaled its scent, imagined what secrets it contained to help us live on a hotter planet. “What’s under here?” she asked. “What mysteries are we going to unveil?”

The soil was deposited into a clear plastic bag, then labeled with the coordinates of this exact location on Earth.

Dr. Kiers, 45, an evolutionary biologist based at the Free University of Amsterdam, is on a novel mission. She is probing a vast and poorly understood universe of underground fungi that can be vital, in her view, in the era of climate change.

Some species of fungi can store exceptional levels of carbon underground, keeping it out of the air and preventing it from heating up the Earth’s atmosphere. Others help plants survive brutal droughts or fight off pests. There are those especially good at feeding nutrients to crops, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

In short, they are what she called “levers” to address the hazards of a warming climate.”