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The Wood Wide Underground Web

When we walk in a forest, we all experience this feeling of serenity. Many people have the need to go for a walk in the forest, to take some deep breaths and connect with nature. The air quality in a place with many trees and plants together, is way higher than in a city. All these trees produce oxygen whilst performing their photosynthesis. But that is not the only reason why we should treasure these beautiful landscapes. Forests are one of the most important ecosystems affecting the climate of our earth. They prevent pollution of the big cities by sticking particles and aerosols on their leaf surface. We can go into detail about everything that happens above the surface. In this article, we go one level deeper… to see what is happening underground in our beautiful forests.

The essentials: Roots, Water & Sugar 

 As most of our plant lovers know, the roots are the most essential part of a plant, as this part is needed to soak up all nutrients and water. In the leaves of the trees, where the photosynthesis takes place, sugars are created. These sugars then get transported back down to the roots of the tree, in order to grow. The sugars get transported via vein-like tubes very close to the surface of the tree. That is why you could actually kill a tree if you cut him close to the surface in some areas. There is a whole transportation system going on in there. Just to give you an estimate… Did you know that the largest trees transport two tonnes of water from the soil to their leaves every day (that is the equivalent of a fully grown rhinoceros). To amaze you even more, the roots of the trees are so strong they hold soil and therefore the forest ground together. And if they need space, they split rocks to form new soil when necessary and they sustain as many creatures as the forest above (underground). We only see a small part of what a tree does in the forest. 

The Wood Wide Web (communication underground) 

The special thing about a forest however, is the fact that many trees and plants (and other microorganisms) are living very closely together. If you put humans very close together in one space, issues arise without doubt. That is different in a forest. The trees and plants are connected, in a sort of natural underground internet. There really is a so-called Wood Wide Web underground - a system of communication and information that extends under the entire forest. These trees literally communicate, help-, or even start tree-wars with each other. They all do this using a network of fungi. These fungi grow around and even in their own roots. The fungi give the tree nutrients, and in return they receive sugars (that travel down from the trunk of the tree as you’ve read in the beginning). Some strong symbiosis going on there (symbiosis is any type of a close and long-term biological interaction between two different biological organisms). There are kilometres of this network … In one square centimetre of topsoil - with every footstep you take in any forest, you could be standing on more than 450 km of this network. You could say that the forest is a giant interconnected system of countless organisms that is linked with soil, surface and sky. 

Tree nurseries, helpers & criminals 

It was discovered that older, stronger trees, often called “mother trees” can even send sugars to small seedlings that are in the shade. This way even the vulnerable ones have a strong chance of survival. They are consciously fed by the trees around, almost a tree nursery you could say. On the contrary, sick trees that are dying, will start sharing their last resources with healthier trees around them, in order to help them out. The most astonishing part of this network is their ability to communicate. If a tree is being attacked by a parasite for example, the wood wide web can send signals to the other nearby trees. The neighbours can then raise their defence strategy. However, there are criminals in each community. There are thieves in the system, which are mostly orchids. They find their way in, and “hack” the system. They steal the resources that were on the way to another neighbour's tree. Other species, like the black walnut, mis-use this network, and spread toxic substances to other trees standing nearby in order to sabotage their rivals. Pretty much a natural Sci-Fi movie that is going on down there! The next time you are in the wood wide web, you might like to think of trees as an ordinary city. Chatting, trading and all kinds of communication happening right underneath your feet. Above, it might just look like one single tree, when really it is part of a gigantic thriving community.

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