Suzanne Simard: How Do Trees Collaborate?

Jun 26, 2020

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode TED Radio Wow-er.

Ecologist Suzanne Simard shares how she discovered that trees use underground fungal networks to communicate and share resources, uprooting the idea that nature constantly competes for survival.

About Suzanne Simard

Suzanne Simard is a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. Her work demonstrated that these complex, symbiotic networks in our forests mimic our own neural and social networks. She has over thirty years of experience studying the forests of Canada.

Access the original TED Radio Hour segment here.


Activity Guide - Printable PDF

Activity 1: System Map

Here's an example of a forest system map.
NPR

System maps are a great way to visualize interactions. You've probably already made one before, if for example you've ever made a food web. Dr. Simard gives us a lot of really great information about what's going on in these forests, and we can make a system map to show the connections.

Materials:

  • Any kind of paper. Though you may find something a bit bigger than regular printer paper may give you more space to work with.
  • Markers, colored pencils, crayons, etc. Different colors are key.

How To Do It:

  • The first step to any system map is to identify the actors and the actions. Fir and birch trees are both actors, while an action would be nutrients and carbon moving through the mycorrhizal network. As you listen to the segment, make a list of all the actors and actions you hear Dr. Simard talk about in her description of the forest system.
  • Once you have the lists, select two or three actions you want to represent. Sometimes things get cluttered when you try to draw more than that. Also identify all the actors involved in the actions you selected.
  • Start drawing! You can start wherever. It may be helpful to cross actors and actions off your list as you finish drawing them. Remember to add labels too.

Fun Modifier: Abstract System Map

System maps can be helpful tools but they don't have to be literal. They can also be more abstract or conceptual. You can modify this activity by picking one action and all the actors involved in that action, and then make a more abstract representation of what is going on. Think of it more like a cartoon.

Here's an example of a forest abstract system map.
NPR

Activity 2: Found Poem

What's a found poem? It's a poem that uses words, phrases, or quotations that have been selected and rearranged from another piece of writing or speech. You make them by first choosing words that you find meaningful or interesting and then arranging those words around a theme or idea.

Materials:

  • Any kind of paper. You may find note cards are helpful too.
  • Something to write with

How To Do It:

  • If you'd like to pick your own theme to create your poem around, listen to the segment once and try to just figure out the big ideas. You can also jump into poem making with the theme we've picked: the wonder and power of underground worlds we cannot see.
  • As you listen, write down words or phrases that catch your interest or seem important to the TED speaker's ideas. Aim for at least 15 to 20 words—the more, the better.
  • Arrange the words and phrases you have selected into a poem. You might find it helpful to copy the words and phrases onto note cards or separate sheets of paper so that you can easily rearrange them. Try to arrange the words in a way that says something about your chosen theme.
  • Some helpful tips and guidelines (not rules!)
    • You don't have to use all the words or phrases you wrote down in step two
    • The poem doesn't have to rhyme, but try to create sections (stanzas)
    • Try not to add any words other than those you found and wrote down. If you're struggling to link two words or phrases, try going back into the segment and finding another word that could link them.
    • Many poems repeat words or phrases, so feel free to uses the same word more than once
    • Little known fact: all episodes of the TED Radio Hour have transcripts! You might find it helpful to read the transcript for this segment as you listen. If you're creating your poem on a computer you can also easily copy and paste your selections.

  • When you've got the poem the way you want it, add a title! Read it aloud, pin it on your wall, share it with us or a friend, or practice non-attachment and recycle it!
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And for most kids around the country, school is officially out of session. But unlike other summers, many kids and teens are stuck at home because of the coronavirus pandemic. And so today, we've got an episode for everyone - kids, adults, parents, teens. You are all invited on this journey because we've invited a certain dad back on the show to share the coolest things he's learned over the years here on the TED Radio Hour, topics to blow the minds of young and old. And mystery guest host, can you please introduce yourself?

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. Hello, Manoush.

ZOMORODI: Yay. Hello, Guy. Welcome back.

RAZ: Thank you.

ZOMORODI: OK. So, Guy, not only were you the host of this show until you so graciously handed over the reins to me, but you are also the host of a rather popular podcast for kids, right?

RAZ: Yeah. It's called Wow In The World. It's a journey through real scientific research. And it sounds a little weird, but it's like a cartoon for the ear where me and my co-host, Mindy Thomas, go on journeys into space and back in time and underwater and everywhere in between searching for incredible scientific discoveries. And it's this joyful, wonderful experience for us and hopefully for the kids who listen to the show.

ZOMORODI: Well, that includes my kids. And we sort of figured, since you and I are both home with our children this summer, we thought, you know, you'd be the perfect person to come on and curate a special summer show for the entire TED Radio Hour family. And you have so kindly brought four of your favorite segments that you did over the years. How did you even begin to choose which segments you were going to bring to us?

RAZ: Well, I think, like you probably experience, Manoush, there are a lot of TED Talks that my kids love and are really inspired by. And then there's some that, you know, of course, are sort of over their heads, right?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

RAZ: But I really wanted to bring segments that spoke to curiosity and the sort of the awe that kids naturally have about the world, and so that's how we kind of came up with this collection.

ZOMORODI: And I will say I did feel that way about the first segment that you brought to us. This one is called, How Do Trees Collaborate? Tell us about it.

RAZ: I love this segment so much. So basically, scientists for - basically forever thought the trees competed against each other for resources - right? - for water and sun and nutrients. And, you know, they figured that the tallest trees in the forest were the strongest trees, right? It makes sense.

ZOMORODI: Right.

RAZ: But Suzanne Simard, the scientist that we're about to hear from, she totally changed the way that scientists now think about trees because it turns out they don't compete at all. In fact, trees collaborate. They work together through this mysterious underground superhighway.

ZOMORODI: There is an entire communication network happening under our feet. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RAZ: Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard had a hunch.

SUZANNE SIMARD: Yes. That's right.

RAZ: She thought that trees could talk.

SIMARD: Just imagine, like, when you're walking through the forest, you might - you hear the crunching of the twigs under your feet and the rustling of the leaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVES RUSTLING)

RAZ: But she thought - what if there's more going on?

SIMARD: Like a big chattering going on that we can't hear, that they're attuned to each other.

RAZ: Now, at the time, a team of scientists in England were wrapping up an experiment.

SIMARD: Where they'd grown, in the laboratory, these pine seedlings together in little root boxes that you could see through.

RAZ: And the scientists took two of these pine seedlings, these baby trees, that were in the same box, in the same dirt, and then they exposed one of these seedlings to a radioactive carbon dioxide gas.

SIMARD: Carbon-14, a radioactive carbon.

RAZ: And what they found was that some of that radioactive gas, the carbon-14, made its way into the second seedling.

SIMARD: You could visualize it. You could see it.

RAZ: And so from this experiment, it seemed that somehow, these two plants in the same dirt were connected.

SIMARD: And I thought, wow, you know, maybe this is what's going on in my forest.

RAZ: Maybe, Suzanne Simard thought, maybe all the trees in a forest are connected in a kind of network.

SIMARD: You know, like our airport system, our transportation system, our social networks.

RAZ: And maybe, she thought, all of this was happening underground.

SIMARD: When we walk through the forest, what we see as human beings - we just see these, you know, beautiful trees growing out of the ground. But we don't see that they're actually completely linked underground in this superhighway.

RAZ: So Suzanne decided to prove this underground network existed. She devised an experiment using some of the same radioactive gas, a Geiger counter to measure it and a patch of birch and fir trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SIMARD: I figured the birch and the fir would be connected in a below-ground web.

RAZ: Suzanne picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SIMARD: And I gathered my apparatus - plastic bags and duct tape and shade cloth, a paper suit, a respirator. And then I borrowed some high-tech stuff from my university. The first day of the experiment, we got out to our plot, and I pulled on my white paper suit. I put on my respirator. I put the plastic bags over my trees. I got my giant syringes, and I injected carbon-14, the radioactive gas, into the bag of birch.

I waited an hour. I figured it would take this long for the trees to suck up the CO2 through photosynthesis, send it down into their roots and maybe shuttle that carbon below ground to their neighbors. I went to my first bag with the birch. I pulled the bag off. I ran my Geiger counter over its leaves, (imitating Geiger counter). Perfect. The birch had taken up the radioactive gas. Then, the moment of truth. I went over to the fir tree. I pulled off its bag. I ran the Geiger counter up its needles. And I heard the most beautiful sound, (imitating Geiger counter).

(LAUGHTER)

SIMARD: It was the sound of birch talking to fir. And birch was saying, hey, can I help you? And fir was saying, yeah, can you send me some of your carbon? I was so excited.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMARD: I ran from plot to plot. And I checked all 80 replicates. The evidence was clear. paper birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation. So it turns out the two species were interdependent, like yin and yang. And at that moment, everything came into focus for me. I knew I'd found something big, something that would change the way we look at how trees interact and for us, from not just competitors but to cooperators.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Now, you have to understand that Suzanne's discovery was pretty revolutionary because up until this point, most ecologists believed that trees competed against each other, that their world was, like, a Darwinian struggle with winners and losers.

SIMARD: Yeah, you know, that they're competing for light and water and nutrients.

RAZ: And that the strongest trees were the ones that grew tall, the ones that dominated the canopy and took all the resources. But Suzanne's experiment showed that something else was true.

SIMARD: They're actually sending messages back-and-forth that balances the resource distribution among the community.

RAZ: In other words, trees aren't just connected. They're actually sharing resources with each other.

SIMARD: So what we found initially, if one tree had a lot of water in it or a lot of nitrogen or had high photosynthetic rate and if one tree is sick, then the neighboring tree shuttles more of those nutrients to that suffering tree.

RAZ: And when you say communicate, do they actually communicate? Like, do they warn each other about, like, a fire or an invasive species or something?

SIMARD: Yes. So if one tree gets damaged by, say, mountain pine beetle, the injured seedling will up its defense enzymes. And then the receiving tree will then increase its defense enzymes because it knows now that there is some kind of damaging agent around.

RAZ: Wow. So how are they doing this? Like, how are they communicating through an underground network?

SIMARD: So they're physically connected by these microscopic fungi. And...

RAZ: So mushrooms?

SIMARD: Yes, you're right. We call them hyphae or mycelium. In fact, like, if you were to, you know, peel back the surface of the forest floor, you'll see the fungi that are linking these trees together. They're very visible. And it's these white and yellow, different colored threads that are - they look like, you know, sewing threads. But they're fungal threads. And they're crisscrossed and going off in multiple directions. And they work together to create a very, you know, a very complex web. And they're in constant communication between all the trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SIMARD: Forests aren't simply collections of trees. They're complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees and allow them to communicate, and they provide avenues for feedbacks and adaptation. And this makes the forest resilience. That's because there are many hub trees and many overlapping networks, but they're also vulnerable because hub trees are not unlike rivets in an airplane. You can take out one or two, and the plane still flies. But you take out one too many or maybe that one holding on the wings, and the whole system collapses. Well, you know, the great thing about forests as complex systems is they have enormous capacity to self-heal.

In our recent experiments, we found with retention of hub trees and regeneration to have diversity of species and genes and genotypes, that these mycorrhizal networks, they recover really rapidly. We need to regenerate our forests with a diversity of species and genotypes and structures by planting and allowing natural regeneration. We have to give Mother Nature the tools she needs to use her intelligence to self-heal, and we need to remember that forests aren't just a bunch of trees competing with each other. They're super cooperators. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: Oh, so good, Guy. Do you think about this segment, like, every time (laughter) you go for a walk...

RAZ: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Through a forest, I'm guessing?

RAZ: Yeah. Yeah. I - all the time. I live in California, in Northern California. And every time I'm in a redwood forest, I think about Suzanne Simard and how trees and forests are models for us, for human beings.

ZOMORODI: In terms of the resiliency that they can help build in groups. I mean, I feel...

RAZ: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Like this idea of helping each other, having that cooperation in our roots is actually really, really wonderful to think about in light of what's been going on in the world right now and...

RAZ: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...How much we need our neighborhoods and our communities to be resilient and help each other.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, we will all, at some point in our lives, need help. And we can all also help. It's an incredibly simple idea, but it's also so powerful. And Suzanne's research just puts it out into the world in such a beautiful way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: OK. When we come back, Guy, we're going to go from the forest to the Caribbean Sea and some dolphins who actually have some things to say and communicate. You want...

RAZ: All right.

ZOMORODI: ...To make some clicking dolphin noises for me here?

RAZ: (Imitating dolphin).

ZOMORODI: I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

RAZ: (Imitating dolphin). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.