Corals and trees talk

Scientists Learn How Corals and Trees Talk in Complex Ways

Scientists are learning that corals and trees ‘talk’ in a real sense. They’re among the most important lifeforms on the planet, and they communicate in complex ways. 

For thousands of years, ancient people have known that life is interconnected, but scientists are finally catching on. Now, we know trees talk through a sort of “otherworld network,” and the corals of the oceans are also communicating in ways new to science.

New research suggests both trees and underwater corals may communicate with sound. Moreover, scientists in New York are learning how ancient forests dating back 385 million years reshaped the planet in the Devonian period with their massive root systems. When the ancient forests began growing, they absorbed carbon dioxide and changed the planet.

“The arrival of these forests was the creation of the modern world,” said Christopher Berry, a paleobotanist at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.

While we beginning to understand how corals and trees talk, they are threatened by our activities. Like the trees, humans are also changing the planet in myriad ways. For a few examples, we’re accelerating climate change, deforestation, pollution, and over-harvesting oceans and forests.

Notably, even sound pollution may be affecting the corals.

The Mother Trees and Old Growth Forests

Indigenous peoples and ecologists around the globe are sounding an alarm that cutting down the Mother Trees and old-growth forests will exacerbate climate change and devastate ancient, interconnected, communicating ecosystems.

Right now, the cycle trees started which created the modern world may be coming to an end. Now, a new cycle threatens our survival as a species as we remove the trees.

“Around the world, forests are being cut away, and the ancient carbon left by prehistoric trees—our main source of coal—is being dug up and burned. ‘What’s happening today is the opposite of what happened in the Devonian,’ said William Stein, a paleobotanist at Binghamton University. ‘Once again, sweeping change begins and ends with trees.'”

Corals and Trees Talk with Sound?

Recently, scientists have learned that both plants and corals may indeed be communicating with sound, among other complex ways. Trees are talking through what’s been dubbed a “wood-wide web.” Now, there is evidence that corals use sounds to find their way in the ocean reefs. 

For example, scientists found “genes related to the reception and/or emission of sound” in the coral Cyphastrea, the brain corals. Similarly, trees and other plants may receive ultrasonic sounds in their roots.

“Land plant species have been recognized for communicating in several different ways,” scientist Rimoldi Ibanez from South Florida State College told The Debrief.  “[They do this] through ultrasonic sounds in the roots, gases through the leaves, chemical signals through the roots, and the Mycorrhizal fungus network,” Ibanez continued.

When a coral reef dies, the fish that once created such a vibrant, colorful display leave. Then, the noisy sounds of a healthy reef go silent.

To attempt to repopulate reefs, scientists have played the sounds of healthy reefs over speakers, called “acoustic enrichment.” Such efforts showed remarkable results, encouraging a 50% increase in species diversity. (see video below via CNET)

Genes for Sound Emission and Reception

Ibanez and her fellow researchers found two genes called TRPV and FOLH-1 used for “sound emission or reception in sea anemones and freshwater polyps.” Possibly, the corals may communicate about “possible dangers, resources, or other information,” she suggests.

Today, sound pollution is wreaking havoc on ocean life, and the scientist believes this might be a factor contributing to coral bleaching worldwide.

“[H]opefully, more evidence can be gathered for how critical sounds are in our marine ecosystems,” she said. “I cannot say from what is known now that sound pollution may be causing coral distress or bleaching, but considering the effects seen of sound pollution in other environments, it is possible.”

Since the 1940s, biologist Marie Fish led Navy research into how hundreds of species in the ocean communicate with sound. She recorded a vast acoustic library of all kinds of fish, shrimp, seahorses, and whales were communicating. Thanks to her pioneering efforts, we learned that “the once-silent world covering three quarters of the earth’s surface” was never silent.

Now, we can add corals to the list of vocalizers.

The World’s Oldest Forest in New York

Although it may sound surprising, one of the world’s oldest-known forests is in Cairo, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. There, an ancient fossilized woodland dates back 385 million years. Preserved in stone, the fossilized roots systems of trees called Archaeopteris (not to be confused with the unrelated bird-like dinosaur Archaeopteryx), branch out like modern tree roots. 

These first trees had “flat, green leaves ideal for absorbing sunlight, girthy, lumber-worthy trunks,” and massive root systems.  

Researchers believe that the Archaeopteris genus may be the first “modern trees,” and when they appeared, as if out of nowhere, they took over the planet, changing everything.

“We call it a revolution,” said William Stein. “A lot of these features … signal higher metabolic rate. And they show up in Archaeopteris all together, like a miracle, almost.”

Perhaps, these ancient root systems formed one of the first communication systems. Today, it’s believed mycorrhizal fungus networks along ancient tree roots are among the most important communication systems on Earth. Certainly, they deserve protection as well as the remaining and dwindling old-growth forests. 

Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest

Recently, scientist Suzanne Simard, whose research into tree communication was made famous in the blockbuster movie Avatar, published Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Simard found that trees, particularly the oldest among them, nurture each other through the mycorrhizal network that acts as a neural network, even among different species. Thus, there’s not merely competition among the trees but cooperation and interconnection. When a Mother Tree dies, it can leave other trees weakened and susceptible to disease.

Simard’s research has been published in peer-reviewed journals like Nature since 1997. At that time, the journal used the phrase “wood wide web” about her research.

Complexity Science

Today, Simard still hopes to change forestry practices, introducing “complexity science,” which considers how life in forests is interconnected.

“Complexity science can transform forestry practices into what is adaptive and holistic and away from what has been overly authoritarian and simplistic,” she states.

By using empathy with other lifeforms, we can return to the thinking of indigenous cultures, who have always known that life is deeply connected.

“By understanding [plants’] sentient qualities, our empathy and love for trees, plants, and forests will naturally deepen and find innovative solutions. Turning to the intelligence of nature itself is the key,” she writes.

One Branch of a Larger Tree of Life

Thus, saving our species will require us to listen – to the trees, the corals, all of life, and the planet. Moreover, our continued growth requires us to respect the ancient wisdom and ways of nature. 

Humanity is but one branch of a larger Tree of Life that will always be interconnected and interdependent. If we fail to change, our branch of the tree will no longer receive nourishment. We’ll fade away, but life will eventually continue and grow without us.

See more about Finding the Mother Tree below:

Featured image: Coral by ncastaneyra via PixabayPixabay License with tree by cocoparisienne via PixabayPixabay License