From Tree to Shining Tree

A forest can feel like a place of great stillness and quiet. But if you dig a little deeper, there’s a hidden world beneath your feet as busy and complicated as a city at rush hour.

In this story, a dog introduces us to a strange creature that burrows beneath forests, building an underground network where deals are made and lives are saved (and lost) in a complex web of friendships, rivalries, and business relations. It’s a network that scientists are only just beginning to untangle and map, and it’s not only turning our understanding of forests upside down, it’s leading some researchers to rethink what it means to be intelligent.

Produced by Annie McEwen and Brenna Farrell. Special Thanks to Latif Nasser, Stephanie Tam, Teresa Ryan, Marc Guttman, and Professor Nicholas P. Money at Miami University.

Listen

“Suzanne Simard:

The fungus has this incredible network of tubes that it’s able to send out through the soil, and draw up water and mineral nutrients that the tree needs.

Latif:

Wait. I thought, I thought tree roots just sort of did, like, I thought, I always imagined tree roots were kind of like straws. Like, the tree was, like, already doing that stuff by itself, but it’s the fungus that’s doing that stuff?

Jennifer:

Yes, in a lot of cases it is the fungus. Because tree roots and a lot of plant roots are not actually very good at doing what you think they’re doing.

Robert Krulwich:

She says the tree can only suck up what it needs through these — mostly through the teeny tips of its roots, and that’s not enough bandwidth.

Jad A.:

Wait. So, okay. So the fungus is giving the tree the minerals.

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah.

Jad A.:

What is the tree given back to the fungus?

Robert Krulwich:

Remember I told you how trees makes sugar?

Jad A.:

Yeah.

Robert Krulwich:

So that’s what the tree gives the fungus. Sugar.

Jennifer:

The fungi needs sugar to build their bodies, the same way that we use our food to build our bodies.

Suzanne Simard:

They can’t photosynthesize. They can’t take up CO2. And so they have this trading system with trees.”