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Talking Trees: the Real Life Fantasy of the Motion Film 'Avatar'

By now most of us should have seen the motion film ‘Avatar’, and should be reasonably familiar with the sub-plot of the film – an ecosystem called ‘Aywa’ that communicates with it's constituent parts on a planet-wide scale. Regardless of whether you liked the film or not, I’m sure I wasn’t the only biologist in the audience to embrace the concept of a sentient ecosystem and, most importantly, delight in the fact that it could defend itself when endangered. Yet it would seem a ‘sentient ecosystem’ might not be the thing of science fiction, as new research is beginning to show.

It was whilst watching a German science documentary called ‘Terra X’ that the concept of talking trees was brought to my attention over a leisurely Sunday morning breakfast. So, with nothing else planned for the day, I decided to do a little snooping to learn a little more about the research that’s investigating this fascinating subject. Within the matter of minutes, I came across an article in the New Yorker about a prize-winning scholar from Cambridge University called ‘Merlin Sheldrake’, who amongst many things, specialises in mycorrhizal fungal networks. Merlin’s research focuses on communication between individual plants using an underground network of fungal, finger-like hyphae – a structure that’s being described as the Wood Wide Web. The concept of mycorrhizal associations is not new and most of us with a biological background are aware, at the most basic level, that the fungi derives sugars from the plants, in exchange for the fungi providing essential nutrients to the plants, for example, phosphorus. Yet from the research being undertaken, it would appear our understanding of the association is far too simplistic.

When it comes to the concept of the Wood Wide Web, there are two competing visions, in terms of the language used to describe the communication of the network. The first vision is of a socialist forest, where trees are caregivers to one another, with support being given too less well-off trees. The other competing vision is the capitalist forest, where all trees act out of self-interest within a competitive system. Certainly this was the vision I was taught at university - altruism being the domain of higher forms of life. However, research being undertaken in Germany would appear to support the former vision, with the association acting as a social network in which trees can learn, remember, support their less vigorous neighbours or warn each other of dangers. Clearly the more scientific-minded biologists out there will want to see the research proven through rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific research. That said, I can’t help but admit that the child-like part of me would delight to have our very own Aywa here on Planet Earth.

Image Credit: iStock (Oddonatta)

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