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Have you ever wondered what trees are doing underground? You might be surprised to learn that they are not just passively absorbing water and minerals from the soil, but actively communicating and cooperating with each other through a complex network of fungi. This network, dubbed the “wood wide web” by some scientists, allows trees to share information and resources, and even to defend themselves against threats. In this article, we will explore how this fascinating system works and why it matters for the health and diversity of forests.

The Role of Fungi

Fungi are the key players in the underground network that connects trees. They form symbiotic relationships with the roots of plants, called mycorrhizae, which benefit both parties. The fungi help the plants absorb water and nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, from the soil, and in return, they receive sugars that the plants produce through photosynthesis. The fungi have long, thin threads called mycelia, which spread out over large distances and connect the roots of different plants. Through these mycelia, the fungi can transfer substances and signals between plants, creating a network that resembles the Internet.

The Benefits of Sharing

Trees use the fungal network to share resources and information with each other. For example, older and larger trees, which have access to more sunlight, can provide sugars to younger and smaller trees, which are shaded by the canopy. This helps the young trees grow and survive in harsh conditions. Trees can also warn each other about droughts, diseases, and insect attacks, by sending chemical, hormonal, and electrical signals through the network. This allows them to prepare their defenses and activate their immune systems. Some trees can even recognize their relatives and favor them over strangers, by allocating more resources and sending more signals to them.

The Dark Side of the Network

However, not everything is peaceful and harmonious in the wood wide web. Some trees can also use the network to compete and sabotage each other. For instance, some trees can release toxic chemicals through the network, which inhibit the growth and survival of other plants. This is a way of eliminating rivals and securing more space and resources for themselves. Some fungi can also act as parasites, rather than mutualists, and exploit the plants without giving anything back. They can even hijack the network and manipulate the plants to their advantage.

The Implications for Conservation

The wood wide web is a remarkable example of how nature creates complex and sophisticated systems that enable life to thrive. It shows that trees are not isolated and individualistic, but social and interdependent. It also reveals the importance of fungi, which are often overlooked and undervalued, for the functioning and stability of ecosystems. Understanding how the wood wide web works can help us better protect and manage forests, which are vital for the planet and for humanity. By preserving the diversity and health of both plants and fungi, we can ensure that the network remains intact and resilient, and that the trees can continue to communicate and cooperate with each other.






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