Scientists are uncovering the secret by which trees talk to one another, says biologist David Clements.

Green Beat: Talking Trees

As an ecologist I am forever being surprised by new interactions that make the world even more interconnected than I thought

Ecologists study interactions. As an ecologist I am forever being surprised by new interactions that make the world even more interconnected than I thought.

In the movie Avatar ecologist Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver) tries to prevent deforestation by explaining her exciting finding that there is a biological neural network linking living things at the forest site on the planet Pandora.

Her findings are not too far off many of the findings by ecologists here on earth.

One of my former students at Trinity Western University, Shannon Guichon, did her Ph.D. at UBC on underground networks in our coastal forests here in B.C. She and other scientists are uncovering the secret by which trees talk to one another.

Under the forest floor the roots of trees are connected by a mycorrhizal network — threads of fungal growth that link the trees.

These tiny threads pass nutrients from tree to tree, and also from other plants. Guichon found that cedar seedlings benefited from a forest floor where deer ferns and salal bushes could provide mycorrhizal connections to help them get started.

Other ecologists are turning up stories of how bears drag salmon into our coastal forests, and the nutrients from the salmon from the ocean end up in the trees.

All very interesting, but how does it relate to the average urban dweller? We are all part of these nutrient cycles when, for example, we eat salmon or burn carbon fuel.

When we do these things, even in excess, we tend to think of it as just getting something we want. Just as when we overeat or overdose, and there are consequences for our bodies, there are unintended consequences for the planet (and the trees) when we use resources excessively.

Many say the market will take care of these problems. However, ecological relationships that connect to human economy are very complex and involve much longer timescales than the market can fathom. The market does not know the full cost.

Government regulations or taxes (e.g., carbon taxes) are designed to help us pay the full cost, because almost everything we pay for has unintended consequences.

So yes, I am nagging you about why you need to take your medicine. However, on a more positive note, doing things that are good for you can bring happy consequences.

When we feel better after an illness, we feel really good. When we do exercise, we feel exhilarated about being healthier. Whatever you choose to do for the environment in 2017, I trust will give you a sense of green joy and keep the trees talking.

David Clements is professor of biology and environmental studies at Trinity Western University