Microbes in the Mountains: The Wood Wide Web
Updated: Feb 2
One of the reasons I hike is to disconnect a bit from my job and the 24-hour news cycle of the internet. The world wide web keeps us constantly aware of work, news, details of our friends lives, and YouTube videos for every subject (including my favorite: hiking and gear). So I go into the woods, there’s no WiFi and often no cell connection - GASP, how will I survive not knowing what latest thing I should be suffering FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) for?
Fear not, there are other networks at work in our world, even out among the trees in remote places, with as much variety as Facebook! Have you ever heard of the Wood-Wide Web?
I can’t often open Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or TikTok out there in the W hite Mountain National Forest, but it turns out there’s another information highway right below my feet, a subterranean social network! Trees and plants use this network made up of millions of species of fungi and bacteria to communicate and exchange nutrients. This network communicates to the trees and other organisms the status of the ecosystem around them in real time! German forester Peter Wohlleben dubbed this network the “wood wide web".
This complex network, called the Mycorrhizal Fungi Network, exists in and around the roots of forest plants. When you think of fungi in the woods, you might think of the many different mushrooms that are so prevalent, but really, these are the fruit of the fungi growing beneath the ground. Millions of species of fungi and bacteria swap nutrients between soil and the roots of trees, forming a vast, interconnected web of organisms throughout the woods.
These living fiber networks are critical to the health of the forest. The body of a fungus is composed by fine and intricately branched threads called hyphae, which form a dense network referred to as mycelium. There are two basic types of fungi that make up the mycorrhizal fungi network, the those that exist on and around the roots, ectomycorrhizal fungi (EMF) and those that actually penetrate the roots, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). The network moves carbon, nutrients, water, and more; running for miles, connecting plants and fungi together in an intricate web. This is a symbiotic network, trees could not survive without the microbes in the soil and vice versa. Here's a great Ted Talk that explains why you should care about it!
Research has even found that there are ‘mother’ trees that use the network to assess the health of her saplings and send nutrients and even knowledge! Researchers have also found that a dying tree can use the network to disperse it's resources and warn other plants about potential dangers in the environment. It is truly incredible when I think about all that is going on around me as I stroll (or breathlessly struggle) along a trail.
My phone is chock-full of interesting scenes made possible by the mycorrhizal fungi network. This one was from a recent trip up Galehead Mountain, one of NH's 48 Four Thousand Footers. But these scenes are everywhere, in your yard, along the side of the road, even wedged between sidewalks and cracks in the road. We are all connected by numerous webs and there's no need for FOMO, just look around and feel the mycelium reaching out!