Tree Communities Harness the Power of Interdependence


Trees are known to compete for sunlight and soil resources, but forest researchers have discovered a deeper reality beneath the ground. Trees actually relate to one another in communities and even share essential nutrients through their roots.

Dr. Camille Defrenne, an ecologist specializing in plant-fungal symbioses at the Climate Change Science Institute and Environmental Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is one such researcher who has studied the inner workings of this remarkable phenomenon.

Trees communicate and cooperate through their roots. ©cocoparisienne/Pixabay
Trees communicate and cooperate through their roots. ©cocoparisienne/Pixabay

Fungi Bridge the Gap between Trees

During her Ph.D. studies at the University of British Columbia, Defrenne spent four years studying the fine roots of Douglas-fir trees at the side of Dr. Suzanne Simard, best-selling author and professor of forest and conservation sciences. Simard’s research on the observed ‘intelligence’ and communication between trees has sparked widespread interest in this increasingly popular field.

“In most forests around the world, trees share resources, such as carbon and nutrients, and information such as defense signals,” explains Defrenne. They are able to do so because they are interconnected below the ground thanks to mycorrhizal fungi. For 400 million years, these fungi physically associated with the tips of fine roots, creating exchange sites where a tree can trade the carbon it gets from photosynthesis for resources acquired from the soil by fungi.

Tiny fungi connect tree roots for mutual benefit. ©Camille Defrenne