Natural Social Networks


If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Even if there isn't a human around to hear it, the surrounding forest is entirely aware of it. Though it may appear that plants stand as individuals, mounting research is revealing the true connected nature of plants.

The Amazon Rainforest.  Source . 

The Amazon Rainforest. Source

Imagine the Amazon, the largest and most bio-diverse rainforest in the world, with 390 billion individual trees. Now imagine that each tree is connected in an underground "Wood Wide Web" formed by a sprawling network of fungi. This network functions to spread nutrients, alert to an oncoming attack or coordinate a defense. 

Mycelium.  Source . 

Mycelium. Source

The key in their communication is mycelium - the branching network of fungi that can be compared to the internet. Mycelium connect with root systems to form mycorrhizal networks. Forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia studies such networks in old growth forests. In one study, she found that in a 30x30 meter forest area containing 300 trees, each tree was connected to each other. She has also noted "mother trees" which act as hubs in a mycelial network, supporting other trees in the network and their offspring. 

Mycorrhizal Network.  Source .

Mycorrhizal Network. Source.

Mycorrhizal networks also explain the phenomena of shaded plants in a forest receiving nutrition - the plants connect to the wood wide web which transports carbon, sugars and other nutrients to them. In one study, scientists shaded certain plants and found that trees connected via mycorrhizal networks proportionately transported nutrients to the shaded plants. 

Paul Staments, an expert in the field of mycology, sees such networks as a collective fungi consciousness. In his book Mycelium Running he remarks that "the mycelium operate at a level of complexity that exceeds the computational powers of our most advanced supercomputers." A seemingly tranquil forest is truly alive with a robust and powerful language, fostered by the wood wide web. 


Makahiya plant responding to touch.  Source . 

Makahiya plant responding to touch. Source

Just as Paul Revere famously warned John Hancock and Samuel Adams that the British were coming to arrest them (though he never actually said "The British are coming!"), plants send out airborne warning signals to nearby plants of an incoming attack. As an insect chomps on the leaves of a plant, the plant responds by releasing volatile organic compounds into the air. Proclaimed as masters of synthetic biochemistry, plants manufacture chemical weapons to make their leaves less nutritious so that insects will go elsewhere. 

Plant transferring an airborne alarm signal.  Source .

Plant transferring an airborne alarm signal. Source.

A study reported to the National Science Foundation studying willow trees, poplars and sugar maples found that healthy trees nearby ones under attack begin to expel chemical compounds to ward off the attack long before it reaches them.  This process, described by some scientists as "plant eavesdropping" demonstrates the ability of plants to sense each other's experience and respond to their environment together. This occurs through airborne signals as well as through mycorrhizal networks. 

implications for the greater good

There are several potential avenues for harnessing these natural social networks. The benefits of the wood wide web seen in a forest can translate to the farm. The connection between plants and fungi enhances access to nutrition and water to the entire crop, enhances soil biodiversity, and bolsters resilience to disease and pests through their shared communication. Farmers that utilize this network may find improved yields and a higher quality soil.

Forest restoration in China.  Source . 

Forest restoration in China. Source

In looking to the future, natural social networks may also be pivotal in addressing deforestation, drought, ecological disease as well as the many other ecological threats we face. For example, mycorrhizal networks could also be essential in helping old growth forests recover from logging or fire. Their messaging and source spreading may be pivotal in restoring and revitalizing areas devastated to promote new prosperous growth.  

Finally, there is the possibility that we may connect to this expansive network. Paul Staments proposes the potential for cross-species interfacing, that will relay mass data including the movement and state of the ecosystem. He describes that "a new bioneering science could be born, dedicated to programming myconeurological networks to monitor and respond to threats in the environment." Mycorrhizal networks could be the next interface through which we foster the health, happiness and harmony of our world. 

A new bioneering science could be born, dedicated to programming myconeurological networks to monitor and respond to threats in the environment.
— Paul Staments, mycology expert and author of "Mycelium Running"