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Question Your World: How Do Trees Help Each Other Out?

Trees are some of the most amazing organisms on our planet. So much of our world is the way it is because of the behind-the-scenes work that they do every single second. Trees put oxygen into our atmosphere, support a myriad of ecosystems, and continue to surprise us with their amazing biological processes that make them thrive all over our planet. They exist standing alone or in vast neighborhoods, but how do trees work together to help their communities? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

These days the mention of sharing conjures up thoughts of social media and letting your friends see the latest awesome cat meme, but trees have actually been sharing for a long time as well and their communal story has just been researched by scientists. The University of Washington just released data from a huge research project that examines the hidden world of tree roots. The story starts with one stump of a Douglas fir that sits on the campus in Olympia, WA. When one imagines a tree stump the look is usually the bottom part of the tree cut flat across revealing a series of rings. This particular stump is different, it's covered in bark. A living tree would be able to generate bark growth, but how would a tree that's been cut down continue to function without its leaves providing the basic necessities for growth? To get an answer these scientists looked at what was happening below ground and were quite amazed to see what was going on.

Trees share vital nutrients, minerals, sugars, and water via underground root exchange. This can happen in two ways, both are equally amazing. One method is by means of fungal hyphae. Long thin strands of this fungus grow around and between tree roots. Some have even been known to stretch for miles! The fungus will drill into the roots of trees and thus become a means by which substances can be exchanged between trees, on a highway of fungal growth. Another way trees can share is by root grafting. This is a process in which roots of different trees grow in the same area, overlap, and physically fuse together. Trees of different species are even capable of fusing their roots together and turning the combined root structures into one massive underground circulatory system.

All of this is pretty remarkable and explains how trees can share vital nutrients among one another even when they seem to be spread far apart from one another. This exchange of sharing has its downsides too though. The ability to exchange from one tree to another opens up the chances of exchanging diseases which could be catastrophic to tree neighborhoods and communities. So, after hundreds of millions of years of natural selection and variations on mutations, survival methods, and many other biological processes why do they still allow the exchange of diseases? There are still many questions left to be answered about the underground happenings of these remarkable organisms. Work on this will continue as scientists look into more species and methods in the upcoming future.

We felt like this information was worth sharing, after all sharing is caring!

Article by: Prabir Mehta Science Museum of Virginia

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