The closest and probably least known form of life underground is the fungal web that connects trees and other aboveground life forms like a kind of internet in the dirt. It’s colloquially known as the “Wood Wide Web.”
by David Stone
Assorted Ideas, Large & Small
The Wood Wide Web
Fungi are essential to the forest because they help trees to get water and minerals from the soil, but they also play another vital role. Fungi release enzymes that break down dead leaves and wood, which provides food for other organisms in the soil. In fact, most of the nutrients that trees need come from decomposing organic matter that fungi have helped to break down.
Fungi also form symbiotic relationships with the roots of trees, which helps them to get water and minerals from the soil. This relationship is so important that some scientists believe that without fungi, trees would not be able to get the nutrients they need to survive.
Few know that researchers into life underground discovered that fungi are neither plant nor animal. They are in a group all by themselves called “Kingdom Fungi.” Mushrooms, yeasts, and molds are all fungi. Scientists estimate that there may be as many as 5.1 million species of fungi on Earth, but only about 100,000 have been described so far. Many more remain to be discovered.
So, while you may not see them, fungi are an essential part of the forest ecosystem. And there are more of them living underground than there are above ground. In fact, the mushrooms you see aboveground are the fungal network’s sex organs.
But no need to cover your eyes. Nature isn’t like that. Nature’s more interested in getting the job done.
But What Are Fungi? Plants or Animals?
While we are familiar with some of the life that exists below ground – such as earthworms and other small creatures – there is much that we don’t know. In fact, more than 90% of the planet’s biodiversity is found in underground ecosystems. These communities of organisms are essential to the health of the planet and play a significant role in the global ecology.
The underground environment has many unique features that make it a hospitable home for life. The soil is rich in nutrients, and water is plentiful due to groundwater and precipitation. The moderate climate and lack of sunlight also make it ideal for certain types of organisms. Additionally, the underground world is constantly changing, providing new opportunities for species to adapt and evolve.
The subterranean ecosystem affects our daily lives in many ways. For example, plants above ground get their nutrients from the soil, which is enriched by the life below. The roots of plants also help to aerate and stabilize the soil. Underground ecosystems also play a role in global climate regulation; for example, by storing carbon dioxide.
Underground systems make above-ground life possible by creating nutrients and by cleansing the air we breathe. They provide food and shelter for countless creatures, many of which we will never see. So the next time you are walking through a forest, remember that there is an entire world thriving beneath your feet!
What Else Do We Know – Or Not Know About Life Underground?
Despite its importance, the subterranean world remains largely unexplored. Only a fraction of it has been surveyed, and much of our knowledge comes from indirect research such as studying how plant roots grow or drilling deep wells to collect water samples. There are still many unanswered questions about life below ground, and scientists are only beginning to scratch the surface of this mysterious world.
Chief among the mysteries of life underground are the deepest, warmer and slower moving organisms. These never see light or know about it. Scientists believe these “subsurface life forms” could number in the trillions. The could play an important role in global energy and nutrient cycles.
While we may never know all there is to know about the subterranean world, continued research is essential to understanding the role it plays in our ecology and how we can protect it.
Next time you are walking through a forest, remember that there is an entire universe thriving beneath your feet.