Words Alia Fawaz

For decades scientists have been claiming that plants are deeply interconnected and function in synergy. Recently people have begun to compare flora ecosystems to the Internet, after studying how plants communicate and feed off each other in a myriad of ways. In James Cameron’s science-fiction blockbuster film Avatar, all the organisms are connected on Pandora, the fictitious forest moon, through a kind of electrochemical communication between tree roots. There is actually some uncanny similarity to this on Earth, according to experts.

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It’s a Tree Thing

In Germany, trees and forests are deeply rooted in the people’s psyche, as virtually every town has woodlands on its outskirts. This “forest culture” has spawned a best-selling new book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben. After years working for the state forestry administration in Rhineland-Palatinate and then as a forester managing 3,000 acres of woods near Cologne, Wohlleben began to understand that contemporary practices were having a negative effect on the trees and those who depend on them.

He claims that society tends to look at trees simply as “organic robots” designed simply to produce oxygen and wood. He noticed that trees operate less like individuals and more as communal beings, working together in networks and sharing resources, thus increasing their resistance.  He saw that the plantation forests (forests designed for timber production) that make up most of Germany’s wood have the trees artificially spaced so that they get more sunlight and grow faster.  But Wohlleben and many naturalists argue that creating too much space can disconnect trees from their networks and reduce their inborn resilience mechanisms.

While working for the state municipal forest owners, Wohlleben convinced his bosses to do things his way. He eliminated insecticides and expensive machinery, brought in horses and experimented with letting the woods grow wilder. Within two years the forest went from loss to profit, as the quality of the wood improved significantly.

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The Fungi Connection

To understand more about underground networks, one can look into the function of fungi.  While mushrooms are the most familiar among the decomposers, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads, known as a mycelium. These threads act as a type of underground Internet linking the roots of different plants. The fungal network connects these plants so they can help out their neighbors by sharing nutrients and information. The way it works is that plants provide fungi with food (carbohydrates) and in exchange fungi helps the plants suck up water, and provide nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, via their mycelia.

Similar to the human Internet, the fungal Internet is also susceptible to “cyber crimes.” That is because plants’ fungal connections mean that they are never truly alone, and bad neighbors can harm them.  For example, there are some plants that don’t have chlorophyll, so they cannot produce their own energy through photosynthesis. Some of these plants, such as the phantom orchid, take the carbon that they need from nearby trees, via the mycelia of fungi two which both are connected.

A fungus expert, Paul Stamens, even went so far as to call them “Earth’s natural Internet,” when he first noticed similarities between mycelia and ARPANET, the U.S. Department of Defense’s early version of the Internet. It has taken decades to piece together what the fungal Internet can do, and scientists now know that these fungi are mycorrhizal, meaning that they have a beneficial, symbiotic relationship with a host plant.