Imagine an information superhighway that accelerates interactions between a large and diverse population of individuals, allowing individuals who may be widely separated to communicate and help each other.
When you walk in the forest, all of this is happening under your feet. No, we are not talking about the internet, we are talking about fungi. As a result of a growing body of evidence, many biologists have started using the term "wood wide web" to describe the communication services that fungi provide to plants and other organisms.
While researching her doctoral thesis more than 20 years ago, ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered that trees communicate their needs and send nutrients through a network of intertwined fungi buried in the soil - in other words, she found that they “talk” between itself.
Simard showed how trees use a network of fungi in the soil to communicate their needs and help neighboring plants.
Since then, she has pioneered research on how trees “talk”, including how these filigree fungi help trees send warning signals about environmental changes, look for relatives and how they transfer their nutrients to neighboring plants before they die.
All trees worldwide form a symbiotic association with underground fungi. These fungi are beneficial to plants and explore the soil. Fungi send mycelium, a mass of fine threads, through the soil. The mycelium collects nutrients and water, brings them back to the plant and exchanges nutrients and water for a sugar or other substance produced by the photosynthesis of the plant.
It is this network that connects one tree root system to another tree root system, so that they can exchange nutrients and water between them.
The word "mycorrhiza" describes the mutually beneficial relationships that plants have in which fungi colonize their roots. Mycorrhizae connect plants that may be widely separated.
Although mushrooms are the most familiar part of a fungus, most of their bodies are made up of mycelium. These wires act as a type of underground internet, now called the "wooden network", which links the roots of different plants and different species.
By linking to the fungi network, they can help their neighbors, sharing nutrients and information or sabotaging unwanted plants, spreading toxic chemicals across the network.
Fungus nets also increase the immune system of your host plants. Simply connecting to mycelial networks makes plants more resistant to disease.
Large trees help small and young people to use the fungal internet. Without this help, Simard thinks that many seedlings would not survive. She found that the seedlings in the shade, which probably lack food, received carbon other trees.
The revelation of the existence of the Wood Wide Web and the increased understanding of its functions raise big questions - about species begin and end; about whether a forest can best be imagined as a single superorganism, rather than a grouping of independent individualists; and what exchange, sharing or even friendship can mean between plants.