Forest , trees, ecology

Seeing the forest for the trees

Seeing the forest for the trees

The relationship between forests and mycorrhizae is an important, yet often overlooked one. In this issue, two studies use data from the US Forest Service to explore how these networks act as key drivers in determining forest macroscale structure. Averill et al. suggest that arbuscular mycorrhizae and ectomycorrhizae create positive feedbacks which encourage their own prevalence over each other; resulting in a state of either one or the other dominating overall. Meanwhile, Carteron et al.'s study reveals insight into how different types of fungal network affect tree diversity across individual forests all over America.

It has been suggested that ectomycorrhizae drive positive plant–soil feedbacks that result in low tree diversity, whereas arbuscular mycorrhizae support high diversity because of negative feedbacks. However, the authors found that forests dominated by either type have relatively low tree diversity, and that high diversity is found where both types of network are present.

Despite typically going their separate ways, foresters and ecologists often find themselves united when it comes to examining forests. These two studies provide a valuable look into mycorrhizal networks while also offering insight into how these disparate fields collaborate in order to better understand forest ecosystems as well as the potential for extraction within them. With debates around realism versus idealism, objectivity versus vested interests, this dichotomy between forestry and ecology is not one that only applies to our forests - but has proven more enduring here than other natural environments such as agriculture or marine life.

The relationship between forestry and ecology is complex, as shown by Suzanne Simard's autobiography Finding the Mother Tree. From her experiences growing up in a logging family to uncovering forests' intricate networks of fungal communication, she eventually learned that despite common practices like clear-cutting being effective commercially in the short term it could have damaging long-term effects on ecosystems. Her research sparked debate over sustainable methods for forest management at odds with industry standards set at the time.

Ecologists and foresters share a mutually beneficial relationship, with ecologists tapping into an invaluable data source – forestry databases. Monitored for centuries by knowledgeable foresters driven by commercial incentives to record accurate details, these datasets offer vast insight on core ecological topics such as coexistence theory, biogeochemical niche dynamics and patterns of dominance - many of which are explored in this special publication! Additionally, their expansive spatial-temporal coverage is crucial when analyzing the effects of global climate fluctuations on biodiversity mortality rates.

That said, there is still a need for caution. In many cases — including in the US Forest Inventory Analysis programme — the monitored plots are located on land that is harvested for commercial use and/or thinned as a part of management programmes. Such management could alter interpretation of ecological results based on these data. Further, national forest inventories typically monitor only a few variables — tree growth and mortality — and are not designed to consider the other flora, fauna and environmental characteristics of forests, thus neglecting important interactions. In this regard, some may argue that plots deliberately established by ecologists, in areas that are not logged, should remain the gold standard for basic forest ecology research. 

Whenever one discipline pulls another discipline’s data or tools off the shelf, there are risks of unintended consequences. In the case of using forest inventory data, ecologists would benefit from involving representatives of government agencies in the research to ensure that any complexities in the datasets are correctly dealt with. Closer collaboration might in turn improve the two-way interaction between the disciplines, with foresters encouraged to consider the most recent developments in ecological theory and data.