Primal Resonance

Scientists Listen to Trees to Save Forests

New discoveries could help reduce forest fires and prevent bug infestations, based on two scientific studies about how trees function.

In one, researchers are listening to the ultrasonic complaints of drought-stricken, beetle-infested piñon pines. They hypothesize that the beetles find vulnerable trees by detecting these sounds. The beetles also emit ultrasounds to communicate among themselves, which may attract more bugs to a tree under attack. Dr. James Crutchfield, from the University of California at Davis, who is collaborating with the Art and Science Laboratory in Santa Fe, says that if the theory proves true, it may be possible to use ultrasound to confuse and divert the beetles and protect the trees.

The other study has solved the mystery of how trees produce low-level electrical power. This opens the way to using trees’ own electricity to power networks of sensors for early fire detection, even in remote regions. Shuguang Zhang, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced the finding in PLoS ONE, a Public Library of Science online journal. His research team notes that trees generate electricity from an imbalance in the acidity between a tree and the soil; it’s the same principle students use to generate a charge using a lemon or potato at high school science fairs.

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