The forest – ecosystem and/ or organism?

Is there a person who does not like forests? Someone who is not fascinated by the atmosphere, the smell, the sounds of a forest? Maybe some people are scared by forests. The darkness, the many places to hide and unknown sounds. But actually: that’s what makes the forest a mystical and tempting place to be, even though it might be scary.

Today I would like to look at forests from a different point of view. Besides their natural beauty and place where we all enjoy to spend time. How does the forest function as an ecosystem. Why is it so successful? Can a forest be compared to an organism? Is it only a sum of many different plants, animals and fungi? Or is it more of a complex system, with interwoven relationships, benefits and interdependencies? And of course: can the concept of a forest inspire us to optimize the way we organize systems with many different factors and requirements? Some aspects I will write about today, I already mentioned in two of my last articles. Give and take – the success of natural symbiosis and Go with the flow – learning from natural material flows and I will refer back to those articles.


Symbiosis in forests

The forest is home of many different symbiosis, two of which I elaborated on in my last article: lichen and mycorrhiza. Especially the latter is subject of a lot of current research. Not only on a molecular or genetic level! Also in the context of system thinking and how trees of a forest might be connected via an enormous underground fungi network to exchange information and communicate. Prof. Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist from Canada did some amazing research on this topic and I would like to refer you to her TED talk. I could not reflect her research better then she does in her talk.  Plants of a forest have their very own ‚internet connection‘, helping them to stay in contact and communicate with each other (regardless of species). In my opinion this is a much more sophisticated high-technology than our own world wide web. This needs numerous artificial and complicated devices, energy produced from an external source and a hell lot of maintenance!


Nutrition cycles in forests

In my article ‚Go with the flow‚ I was writing about nutrition cycles in nature. To break it down to an easier level: what are cycles in an ecosystem? I find this video very useful in bringing back some memories about what an ecosystem actually is :-). In nature there are no actual waste products. Everything is recycled – decomposed to its basic elements and reused. Forests are home to many organisms – animals, plants, fungi, bacteria. All of those are alive, feeding, reproducing, dying – nutrients and elements are in constant flow throughout the ecosystem ‚forest‘. I find it amazing to see, how the forest functions with constantly maintaining its basic resources via material cycles. Why does our ‚man-made‘ world fail in achieving that? Would we not be capable to keep up our desired live standards via such a system? Or are we simply not able to act and behave in such a way?


Why are forests a paradise for Biomimetics?

I walk through the forest and what do I see? Branches – the topic of my PhD thesis! I recognize stems and roots and twigs and their attachment to each other. I see different shapes in a tremendous diversity – no branch looks the same! This sounds absurd to you? The people I am walking with might recognize completely different things. Maybe they see bugs. Or mushrooms. Or maybe birds. Would do you see in a forest? Forests offer something for everyone. They are a collection of ideas, inspiration and perfection. And this is exactly what we are looking for in Biomimetics. In forests they are actually quite some challenges for its inhabitants. Large trees are stealing the light. Despite all the symbiosis, many organisms are competing with each other for resources. To survive here, organisms must adapt, resist challenges and be smart. Can you think of some examples?


The forest as an organism

I like to regard the forest as an organism itself – not just a sum of many different parts. It functions only as a whole and is in perfect balance. I find it an amazing example for a complex system – being able to maintain and regulate itself, like for example the human body or an individual plant – only on a much higher and complex level!


As I mentioned, one factor which is very important in the forest is LIGHT. We will hear more about this topic in the next weeks – so stay in touch 🙂


Katharina Bunk

My name is Katharina Bunk, I am 26 years old and work as a PhD student in the ‘Plant Biomechanics Group’ in the beautiful city of Freiburg. I studied Biology at the University of Munich followed by the Master program ‘Bionik/ Biomimetics in Energy Systems’ in Villach/ Austria. I am especially interested in Botany and therefore chose Plant Biomechanics as my main field of research.

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