Are Trees Talking Underground? For Scientists, It’s In Dispute.

By Gabriel Popkin
The New York Times
November 7, 2022
Category: Special Feature
Region: Canada, United States

Justine Karst, a mycologist at the University of Alberta, feared things had gone too far when her son got home from eighth grade and told her he had learned that trees could talk to each other through underground networks. Jason Hoeksema of the University of Mississippi, had a similar feeling. Few recent scientific discoveries have captured the public’s imagination quite like the wood-wide web — a wispy network of fungal filaments hypothesized to shuttle nutrients and information through the soil and to help forests thrive. …But as the wood-wide web has gained fame, it has also inspired a backlash among scientists. …Dr. Karst, Dr. Hoeksema and Melanie Jones… found little evidence that shared fungal networks help trees to communicate, swap resources or thrive.

Others, however, maintain that the wood-wide web is on firm ground and are confident that further research will confirm many of the hypotheses proffered about fungi in forests. Dr. Simard, who has been at the University of BC since 2002, has… argued in favor of the view that trees communicate via mycorrhizal networks and against a long-held idea that competition between trees is the dominant force shaping forests. In her TED Talk, she called trees “super-cooperators.” …Dr. Karst argued that much of the evidence used to support the wood-wide web hypothesis could have other explanations. …No one has demonstrated that fungi distribute meaningful amounts of resources among trees in ways that increase the fitness of the receiving trees, Dr. Hoeksema said. Yet nearly all discussions of the wood-wide web, scientific or popular, have described it as benefiting trees. …Lest you worry that a less webby woods could feel a tad drab, the researchers maintain that there’s plenty of intrigue even if it turns out that trees aren’t whispering secrets to each other via subterranean fungal channels.

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