Tree behavior well documented, but what does it mean?

In the mists of time when I was young, humans were defined as “the tool-using animal” since we were sure only people were smart enough to create them.

That changed, however, when a young Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees carefully selected twigs to help them gather termites to eat.

Then Coco the gorilla learned to use a computer to communicate, and ravens and other birds were found to also make tools.

Questions about sentience creatures started a revolution in how people view animals.

And now discoveries about trees are raising the same kind of questions about plants.        

Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, has written a book, “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How they Communicate,” discussing some of the new findings about plant behavior.

The book has sold more than 800,000 copies in its German language edition and has found similar success in translation.

The book uses examples from Wohlleben’s experiences to illustrate the latest findings.

He discusses neighboring trees growing in harmony instead of competing for sunlight and root space.

Research around the world confirms that trees of the same species form communities to share nutrients and even alliances with trees of different species.

A broad picture is beginning to emerge of widely interconnected forest systems where trees recognize and nourish their own offspring, build systems to share water, exchange nutrients with soil fungi and broadcast distress signals about insect pests, drought and disease. Study after study confirms these behaviors exist. The new question is what these behaviors mean.

Most scientists believe that the trees’ reactions are simply programmed responses.

Others, like Wohlleben, have a more anthropomorphic view of the trees.

They feel there may be more than simple chemical reactions to explain the trees’ behaviors.

When caterpillars feed on elms and pines, the trees sense the saliva and release pheromones to attract wasps that lay eggs on the caterpillars.

Other trees distinguish between branches broken by feeding deer and those snapped by humans.

The trees respond to the deer attacks by producing chemicals that make their their leaves less palatable.

Human damage, however, causes the release of healing compounds.

Does this indicate the trees have a sense of taste?

Other research shows Douglas firs recognize the root tips of related firs and send them nutrients but ignore the roots of other unrelated firs.

There’s some speculation they “smell” their relatives through root receptors.

Do trees have a sense of smell?

Whatever is happening, forests with the largest, oldest trees produce more healthy saplings than those where the oldest trees are cut.

There the survival rate of young trees plummets.

Right now the vast majority of plant scientists think plants lack consciousness and believe plant behavior is a result of natural selection.

A 100-year experiment is currently underway in Canada to try to find out exactly what all we’re learning about the trees means.

Although I won’t be here to learn about the findings, it’s possible the results will change the way we think about plants and trees and the great systems they form.



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