Trees in the Forest

Living 10 minutes from the ocean may not have tipped the scale for husband and me to move to northeast Florida, but combined with 2,500 acres (Nocatee Preserve) of a rare conservation area of Florida flora and fauna for hiking, biking, and bird watching surely did. Behind our house, across the pond, we have a view of the trees in the preserve. It’s a place where the wild things live.

Early one morning, five otters came out of the woods and dove into the pond then splashed around in pure delight. Deer and water bird sightings are common. It’s truly a wondrous sight to see an egret pick up a stick and carry it to his nest on top of a communal “rookery” tree. But when I look out to this place of mystery, what first catches my eyes are the tall green pines, hundreds of them.

When I first heard of the Southern Pine Beetle, it was in a dinner conversation, a Del Webb Ponte Vedra friend describing what was taking place in the preserve behind her house.  It piqued my interest, and I attended a one-hour presentation to learn about the cause and impact of the, also called, bark beetle.

Greg Dunn, Senior Forester, explained how the beetles were attacking our pines and there wasn’t much we could do about it.  Ones again, nature had the upper hand. Walking home, as absurd as that may sound, I wondered if trees could feel pain. Now, I know that trees don’t have a nervous system. But, if not pain, can trees sense its environment and respond to a threat, such as the bark beetles that are now attacking areas in our preserve?

My research took me to  Suzanne Simard, Ph.D., a Professor of Forest Ecology in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia.

Dr. Simard had found her passion while spending time with her grandfather, a horse logger.  “Grandpa taught me about the quiet and cohesive ways of the woods,” she tells an audience on tedtalk.com.

Suzanne’s first “aha” tree moment came when she watched her grandfather dig through the forest floor to save their dog who had fallen into an outhouse pit. In her words: “…as grandpa dug through that forest floor, I became fascinated with the roots…I realized that the palette of roots and soil was really the foundation of the forest.”

She was in college, when scientists discovered that in a laboratory setting, pine seedling root could transmit carbon to another pine seedling root. Another “aha” moment. But does this this happen in a real forest? Do trees have a way to support one another from below ground?

People thought she was crazy and funding was hard to come by.  She persevered and 25 years ago, she did her first experiment deep in the woods. Yoscreen-shot-2016-10-03-at-5-26-26-amu can listen to Suzanne as she describes her experiment at http://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other/transcript?language=en

Since then, the interrelationship between trees in the forest along with the complex web—the WWW of the underground-—that includes fungi and spores has been established. Scientists also discovered that like people, some trees are more connected than others.  Older trees feed younger trees to help them get established. Trees support trees of different species, and a Mother tree will send more carbon (food) to one of her own kind.

Back to Dr. Simard: They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings. 

So we’ve used isotope tracing to trace carbon moving from an injured mother tree down her trunk into the mycorrhizal network (underground networks created by fungi that connect  plants together and transfer water, carbon, and nutrients.)and into her neighboring seedlings, not only carbon but also defense signals. And these two compounds have increased the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses. So trees talk, I said to myself.

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