Are trees individuals? Read the Chittenden County Forester’s response. | Surroundings – Advice Eating







Are trees individuals? I started thinking about this question after hearing a researcher say that trees are “colonial organisms” — colonies of autonomous branches rather than individuals. As I struggled to find answers, I found this subject to be as nuanced and as complex as our forests.

While humans and other animals are uniformly Organisms – with a single body – are plants and trees modular Organisms composed of repeating “modules”. Unlike unitary organisms, modular organisms such as trees are not constrained by the determine Growth of a human or animal body. Instead they have one indefinite Growth patterns that can repeat themselves over and over again, forming new roots, branches, buds and sometimes stems.

While branches are connected to a common stem and root system, they can also behave autonomously; They compete with each other for light and satisfy their own energy needs before exporting resources to the rest of the tree. If they are shadowed (or otherwise consume more than they produce), they die.

Since they have a certain autonomy, a branch is also part of a tree; an organism that must maintain its overall shape and growth pattern in order to survive. Trees largely regulate their overall growth through processes known as apical dominance and apical control, Using hormones to suppress the growth of certain buds and branches. Trees with high apical dominance and apical control – like conifers – are expiringresulting in a relatively symmetrical shape. shrubs are running down, with low apical dominance and little apical control, creating an asymmetric growth pattern of many competing stems. Deciduous trees fall between these extremes, with a more or less symmetrical (excursive) overall growth pattern within which each branch is somewhat decurrent.

In some tree species, such as B. Eastern White Cedar, the branch autonomy is particularly pronounced. form cedars stem strips: sections of bark directly connecting groups of branches to groups of roots. When exposed to drought or other stressors, a single strip of trunk and associated roots and branches may die, leaving the rest of the tree relatively unaffected.

Some tree species produce clones – Sprouting groups of genetically identical trees from their root system. On over 100 acres in Utah, an aspen clone called pando is the most massive and perhaps oldest organism (some would say clonal organism) on Earth, weighs an estimated 13 million pounds and is thought to be between 14,000 and 80,000 years old. While Pando looks like a forest of young aspen trees, each tree is one ramet – genetically identical and at least initially linked to the same root system. Viewing these ramets as individuals is both right and wrong: they compete with each other for light and even resources within their common root system, but are also undeniably part of a larger entity.

Many of us were intrigued by the idea of ​​the “Wood Wide Web,” the underground networks of mycorrhiza Fungi that can connect trees together and even facilitate communication and sharing of resources between trees. While some have taken this research to mean that forests are unitary entities or that they are entirely cooperative and altruistic, the truth is more complicated: while they sometimes cooperate, trees also compete with each other – often to the death.

Like a branch on a tree, a tree in a forest is both autonomous and dependent on a larger system. Even a small forest is made up of billions or trillions of organisms, each leading autonomous, complex lives. Trees depend on other organisms to build soil, regulate pest populations, for pollination and seed dispersal—and much more. Together, these myriad independent organisms, their environment, and natural processes form a natural community: an entity with its own behavior and properties. Just as the fate of a branch is linked to the fate of the tree it is attached to, the fate of a tree is inextricably linked to the fate of that natural community.

A branch on a tree or a tree in the forest is an individual, like us, but also part of something larger. As we exercise our autonomy as forest managers, it is up to us to see our part in the bigger picture; to learn how to sustain ourselves while preserving the trees, the forests and the living landscape to which we are connected.


Ethan Tapper is a ranger in Chittenden County for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. See what he’s up to, check out his YouTube channel, sign up for his eNews and read articles he’s written at https://linktr.ee/ChittendenCountyForester

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