Scientists Debunk the Myth: Do Trees Really Have Feelings?

Happy Tree Smiley Face

Researchers scrutinized claims made in two popular books about trees having human-like traits and emotions. Published in Trends in Plant Science, their findings challenge many of these claims as unscientific. They caution against anthropomorphizing plants and highlight issues like the flawed “mother tree concept” and the dangers of making decisions based on appealing but inaccurate narratives, especially in the context of climate change adaptation.

Many attributions in popular publications lack scientific evidence.

Plants are frequently often attributed with abilities similar to those recognized in animals or humans. For instance, it’s suggested that trees possess emotions, and can therefore care for their offspring, like mothers.

In an article in the review journal Trends in Plant Science, 32 international plant and forest researchers followed up on such assertions.

Led by Prof. David G. Robinson, professor emeritus for cell biology at the Centre for Organismal Studies (COS) of Heidelberg University, the researchers analyzed the claims in two popular publications on forests and reached the conclusion that conjecture is equated with fact. They warn against “anthropomorphizing” plants.

Scrutinizing Popular Claims

The article scrutinized the assertions in two widely received books about the hidden life of trees and the search for the so-called “mother tree.”

The researchers report that in those works, trees are attributed with human characteristics and behaviors, including the ability to feel pain and pleasure, to communicate with one another, and to act altruistically.

Based on existing research literature, Prof. Robinson and his co-authors provide detailed evidence that the main assertions are scientifically untenable.

The Heidelberg researcher points out that numerous research papers on the significance of intraspecies competition clearly contradict the contention that trees of a single species support one another and keep each other alive.

The “Mother Tree” Myth

According to Prof. Robinson and his colleagues, newer studies also render the “mother tree concept” untenable.

Many publications based on this concept that presumes to substantiate a targeted transfer of carbon from older to younger trees via networked fungi – the mycorrhizae – are flawed due to a lack of control variants.

“And where the data does actually suggest such a transfer, the quantity of carbon transferred is so small that it is physiologically completely irrelevant for the recipient tree”, states Prof. Robinson. The researchers also criticize that both books cite evidentiary sources that were not peer-reviewed.

Potential Ramifications and Conclusion

Finally, the authors point out the fatal consequences such claims could have for the adaptation of forests to climate change if political decisions are “based on pleasant-sounding but false messages” rather than scientific fact, adds Robinson.

Reference: “Mother trees, altruistic fungi, and the perils of plant personification” by David G. Robinson, Christian Ammer, Andrea Polle, Jürgen Bauhus, Roni Aloni, Peter Annighöfer, Tobias I. Baskin, Michael R. Blatt, Andreas Bolte, Harald Bugmann, Jerry D. Cohen, Peter J. Davies, Andreas Draguhn, Henrik Hartmann, Hubert Hasenauer, Peter K. Hepler, Ulrich Kohnle, Friederike Lang, Magnus Löf, Christian Messier and Torgny Näsholm, 19 September 2023, Trends in Plant Science.
DOI: 10.1016/j.tplants.2023.08.010

The article’s authors included researchers from the University of Göttingen as well as from Austria, Canada, Chile, Great Britain, Ireland, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the USA. They represent the fields of biology, forestry, and plant science.

4 Comments on "Scientists Debunk the Myth: Do Trees Really Have Feelings?"

  1. Reminder: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a work of fiction; trees aren’t really like that

  2. Finding the Mother Tree by Simard should be reviewed.

  3. Stanley Vejtasa | October 24, 2023 at 1:02 pm | Reply

    I have a Douglas fir forest that was partially logged in the 1960s. Some of the stumps from that logging have healed over and have increased in size over the last 60 years. Clearly the nearby trees have made contact with the stump’s roots and fed it with nutrients. Certainly a communal effort.

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