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Sharing Is Caring: Trees Swap Nutrients With Each Other Via Secret Underground Web

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Trees are life. Trees provide oxygen, habitat for some animals and timber to humans to build shelter. Aside from providing life sustaining materials to its co-living thing, trees also help each other by swapping nutrients through a secret underground web, research says.

Researchers from University of Basel, Switzerland revealed that underground, trees are connected by mycorrhiza, a fungus that enables the roots to free up nutrients from the soil and be absorbed by other tree roots. Along with mycorrhiza, sugar also helps nutrients to hook up on tree roots.

Researchers Tamir Klein, Rolf Siegwolf and Kristian Kӧrner found that mature trees transfer nutrients underground. They set up an experiment in a forest in Switzerland, where a crane houses five Norway spruce trees with a height of 40 meters (131 feet).

The construction crane is a source of carbon dioxide for the spruce trees, which are built with thin tubes that sprayed a specific carbon isotope on tree canopies.

After five years of tracking and waiting, the researchers tested the roots of other near beech, larch and pine trees.

"To my surprise, we found the isotope signature in the other roots as well," said Klein.

The isotopes indicated interspecific and bidirectional transfer of carbon assisted by ectomycorrhiza networks. The carbon transfer between trees is estimated to be about 40 percent or 280 kilograms per hectare per (617 pounds per hectare) a year or 4 percent of total forest carbon uptake. The other carbon isotopes were consumed by spruce trees via photosynthesis.

Aside from the exchange of carbon isotopes, sugar is also shared by trees.

While trees are known to be competing for resources such as sunlight, little do we know that they are also sharing vital chemicals to support other trees.

Researchers, though, said that the study needs to be replicated on other ecosystems since it only focused on one area.

"A new dimension and level of complexity to known ecosystem processes," the researchers said, pertaining to the guild of tree roots.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

Photo: Kamil Porembiński | Flickr

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