Trees travel - but not for pleasure

Jun 22, 2021 | written by:

Trees move.
Only, they do it so slowly that we don’t even notice.
On the other hand, slow and fast are relative concepts.

Ask a fly, which beats its wings 200 times a second, if it doesn't think that Usain Bolt moves slower than the queue at the post office (always the one you are in, naturally).

Do trees really move?

Beware of nuances: it’s not the individual trees that move, it’s the forests. The forest can be understood as a single organism constantly searching, just like flocks of birds or human populations, for the place that will offer them the best chance of survival.

"The migration of a forest is nothing more than many trees sprouting up in the same direction. Thanks to the fossils of ancient forests, scientists can trace their movement over the years. They move back and forth across continents, sometimes following the same path more than once, like birds or whales.”

Zach St. George, 'The Journeys of Trees'.

So forests move, but where do they go?

According to Professor Songlin Fei of Purdue's University's forestry department, they do not move north, where temperatures drop, but west, looking for rain. To draw these conclusions, Fei analysed 86 different species in the United States, observing their movements from the 1980s to 2015 thanks to the databases of the U.S. Forest Service. 

He also noticed something else. Most of the species that manage to "migrate" are broadleaf species, which are better able to withstand rain and drought, and those that produce a large quantity of seeds, increasing their chances of reproduction. 

For the more curious, you can read the full study here.

So, just like animals and humans, trees adapt to climate change. And they do so by moving to wetter, cooler places on earth. 

What consequences does this journey have?

But since trees play a central role in all ecosystems, their movement will have an impact both on the places they move away from and those they reach. That is why it is so important in tree-planting projects to choose the right species for the right place - so that they can continue to bring their incredible environmental and social benefits to as many parts of the world as possible.

And who knows, maybe one day they will stop running away.

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