Plants communicate via secret underground pathways!

A small mushroom surrounded by lush green moss and treesDid you know that plants can communicate through an underground network, allowing them to send warning messages and support each other’s survival? Our volunteer Gabby Sherwood explores these hidden pathways.

What’s the pathway made of?

Fungi! This network consists of thin fungal filaments known as hyphae which can stretch over large distances to get to other plants. The network is hugely important as it supports 90% of land plants and so underpins the whole ecosystem.

This fungal network provides resources from nutrient-rich areas found far away and from other plants trading their own supplies. Plants and fungi belong to different kingdoms which makes this partnership particularly special.

Plants are constantly trading via this underground network, allowing those with large amounts of a specific nutrient to share it with others. They can also send chemical warnings to others about potential threats. These stress signals allow plants to prepare their defence systems, making them less vulnerable to nearby dangers.

Bright yellow fungus surrounded by brown leaves

Why do plants and fungi work together?

The relationship itself was established hundreds of millions of years ago as it was beneficial to both plants and fungi. Plants could increase the area from which they received nutrients and be able to communicate with others in the network, while the fungi would have a convenient supply of sugars produced by the plant. Both plants and fungi working together allowed them to function far better than if they were to exist independently. This is nature’s form of teamwork!

Fungi consist of many thin hyphal filaments clumped together. Hyphae are ideal for forming a network as they are extremely long and thin and grow very quickly, allowing lengthy pathways to be formed in very little time. Though fungi can be seen above the soil, their real secrets lie beneath.

Brown mushrooms growing from a tree log

What other amazing things can these fungi do?

Some types of the fungi within these networks can provide other forms of protection as well.

When threatening pests (such as a bacteria or microscopic insects) come along, the fungi can release toxins that kill the invaders and protect the plant from attack. Some carnivorous fungi do not only release toxins but also set traps to capture the pest.

Some fungi form a sticky net-like mesh with their hyphae which unsuspecting pests often become stuck on. Others form hyphal rings so that when a pest moves through the loop it suddenly constricts, tightening around the pest, much like a cowboy’s lasso.

These traps are set to hold victims in place for fungi’s slow digestive process. Fungi take in food by releasing digestive liquid onto the target matter and then absorbing the products. Captured pests are slowly digested alive! A horrifying murder occurring on such a small scale a microscope is needed to see it.

These fungi don’t only give the plants protection from invaders, but also pass on some of the nutrients of their digestion up to the plants. Fungi are very helpful organisms indeed!

Want to learn more? Find out about why fungi matter here.

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