The Underground Economy of the “Wood Wide Web”

A couple of years ago, I heard a story about mushrooms and their role in providing an underground communications network for plant life. What we usually see above ground with a mushroom is not really the full fungus, as its body is mostly made of threads, called mycelium, that connect to plant roots and send messages or share nutrients.

Researchers call this network the Wood Wide Web, and it’s an amazing discovery of modern science, particularly for what it says about an ecosystem (sees short video below).

This relationship between fungi and roots is symbiotic and known as the mycorrhiza association. Fungi and plant enter into an economy where a fungus helps a tree take in water or nitrogen, trade carbon, and the network provides a way to send out warning signals about pests which allows plants to activate chemicals and even change the way they taste.

Mindy Withrow (Instagram: mindyricewithrow)

Over the weekend, I was reminded of this by being immersed in it. Mindy and I spent our time hiking through Oak Openings Preserve on Friday, which has a number of different land features, from sand dunes to wooded forest. We were discussing the mushrooms we saw, the various roots (which seem dead-set on tripping me), how connected the forest feels, and of course, instagrammed it.

We’re gardeners, so we enjoy planet life and figuring out what makes something grow and what doesn’t (see “What Gardening Taught Me About Happiness”). We spent the rest of the weekend dividing plants in our gardens, moving others, and trimming trees and shrubs. So given how our weekend started, it seemed fit for us to listen to a Radiolab episode Sunday morning (“From Tree to Shining Tree“) that explores this underground network.

As a gardener I regularly uproot things, either because they are weeds or because I’m transplanting them, so plant roots and dirt become routine. I may not always think about what bigger connections I might be disrupting below ground. This episode really brings that out, including an incredible story about fungus as miners—and even what they do to Springtails (it’s a nightmare).

So give yourself 32 minutes to listen to the podcast and prepare to be stunned. Also, Springtails are kind of adorable for pests. See the short BBC video below for more on them.

From Tree to Shining Tree

Want to know what a Springtail is, see the video below.


Photo: Brandon G. Withrow, Instagram (CC0)