The Wood Wide Web
Picture yourself walking through a forest; recall the earthy scent of soil and leaves as it wafted to your nose; hear the crunch of your footsteps and the chirps of birds overhead; the chitter of squirrels as they leapt from branch to branch, busying themselves preparing for winter. Meanwhile, something you’re unable to sense lies just below your feet — the amazingly intricate system of fungi and trees that winds underground and connects nearly all the plant life you see around you.
Suzanne Simard, now a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, was one of the first to study these connections now known as mycorrhizal networks. In the process, she provided a whole new understanding of how forest systems function. Often, trees form anywhere from dozens to hundreds of connections with surrounding fungi species, generating a system of negotiation and reciprocity between organisms in the forest. In fact, trees, understory plants and fungi are frequently so interconnected that some scientists refer to them as “superorganisms.”
In these mycorrhizal networks, which Simard refers to as the “Wood Wide Web,” fungi cling to tree roots and provide the tree with water as well as essential nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. In return, the tree supplies sugars to the fungi. This relationship is mutually beneficial for all organisms involved since it increases their chances of survival and provides them with the nutrients necessary to grow and reproduce. Through the network, trees and fungi transfer carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones to each other in order to aid their own survival as well as the survival of the entire system. For example, seedlings that are connected to a mycorrhizal system are 26 percent more likely to survive than those that are not, according to Simard’s studies.
Additionally, when a tree is near death it will send out a stress signal and transfer its carbon to the surrounding trees in order to preserve the network. The oldest, largest and most connected trees in a forest are called mother trees due to the fact that they nurture the plants around them. These trees are incredibly important because they hold up the infrastructure of the mycorrhizal network which is passed along generations of plants in addition to nourishing smaller plants so that they may one day become mother trees themselves.
Despite the benefits of mycorrhizal networks in forests, these systems only exist in old-growth forests, or older forests that have remained mostly undisturbed. Today, only 1 percent of old-growth forests remain in the northeastern United States although 80 percent of it is forested. Destructive methods of lumber harvesting threaten mycorrhizal networks and deplete ecological diversity as forests are clear cut and often planted with homogenous forests. These forests are weaker as they lack the established mycorrhizal networks present in old-growth forests and are therefore unable to easily build connections that may help one another survive. Currently, clearcutting is still practiced on 40 percent of logged areas in the United States and 80 percent of logged areas in Canada. With the world’s forests annually capturing 24 percent of global carbon emissions, these figures are simply unacceptable.
Such high rates of ecological degradation necessitate that more natural land is preserved, a mission advanced by organizations like the Philander Chase Conservancy. Since 2000, the Philander Chase Conservancy has worked to protect nearly 6,000 acres of land from development with the goal of preserving the natural beauty of the farms, woodlands, waters and open spaces in the surrounding area. Organizations like the Philander Chase Conservancy provide hope about the future of mycorrhizal networks and their critical role in supporting woodland ecosystems.
Remember then, the next time you visit a forest: there may be more than meets the eye laying right beneath your feet.
Jabr, Ferris. “The Social Life of Forests.” The New York Times, 7 Dec. 2020.