WTF Fun Fact 13429 – Crown Shyness in Trees

Have you ever seen a tree get nervous? Certainly not, but crown shyness in trees is about to give you a whole new perspective.

Imagine wandering through a dense forest, the quiet whispers of leaves your only company. You gaze upward, finding yourself under a vast, living canopy. Now, observe the leaves’ formation. Notice how each leaf reaches out for its share of sunlight, yet mysteriously avoids overlapping with its neighbor. This intriguing behavior is known as crown shyness.

Crown shyness is a botanical phenomenon where trees of the same species (and sometimes, different species) avoid touching one another. The resulting gaps in the canopy form a stark, jigsaw-like pattern against the sky—a natural artwork of lines and spaces, fascinating and beautiful.

What causes crowd shyness in trees?

The exact cause of crown shyness remains a subject of debate among scientists. Some theories propose that it’s a mechanism to prevent the spread of harmful insects or diseases. Others suggest it’s due to the trees’ sensitivity to physical contact. When branches collide due to wind, they could sustain damage, leading to a phenomenon known as ‘branch abrasion.’ Over time, the trees might “learn” to avoid contact, hence the “shyness.”

But whatever the cause, the consequences of crown shyness on forest ecosystems are tangible. The patterns it creates reduce competition for sunlight, enabling all trees to flourish. Moreover, the resulting gaps in the canopy permit more rainfall to reach the forest floor, benefitting the undergrowth.

Even though we attribute the term “shyness” to this phenomenon, the reality is anything but timid. It’s a fierce competition for survival and a demonstration of cooperative living in the wild. It’s a reminder that trees, though stationary and silent, engage in complex interactions with each other.

The more we know the less we understand

By observing and understanding these unique patterns, we gain insights into the interconnectedness of nature. We comprehend how trees, despite being rooted to the spot, communicate and interact with their environment in ways beyond our understanding.

In our fast-paced world, a moment spent contemplating the “shyness” of the trees can instill a deeper respect for the complexity and subtlety of nature. As we walk under the forest’s green canopy, we’re participating in a delicate dance that’s been choreographed over millennia. A dance where each participant knows their place and respects the other, a dance of survival, adaptation, and above all, cooperation.

So, the next time you wander into a forest, look up. Witness the marvel of crown shyness. You’re not merely observing a scientific phenomenon; you’re peering into an intricate world that continues to inspire, educate, and mesmerize us.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “Some trees may ‘social distance’ to avoid disease” — National Geographic

WTF Fun Fact 13165 – The Power of Trees

Behold the power of trees! In 2015, a study found that having more than 10 trees on their block made people feel as healthy as if they were seven years younger or made an additional $10,000 a year.

The healing power of trees

According to the Washington Post (cited below): “After analyzing two sets of data from Toronto, researchers report that adding just 10 trees to a single city block could improve how healthy a person feels as much as if that person made an additional $10,000 a year or were seven years younger.”

The study also found that people who lived in neighborhoods with more trees were less likely to have hypertension, be obese, or have diabetes. This was true across all demographic and socioeconomic groups, so even trees in a less affluent neighborhood seemed to work their magic on residents.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s a causal link between trees and health. This could just be a correlation. But trees not only affected people’s objective health measures but their perceptions of their well-being as well. We feel better around trees.

Perhaps this is why the Japanese art of “forest bathing” is being explored in relation to cancer treatment.

The study looked at 30,000 people in Toronto, which has universal healthcare. That’s important because access to healthcare is not as reliant on one’s socioeconomic status, so it controls for that factor.

Why are trees good for us?

While the correlation found in the study was strong, the researchers still don’t know why trees make us healthier. One possibility is their ability to remove pollutants from the air.

And the more we learn about the effects of air pollution on our overall health, the more sense that makes. However, there are other studies that show even a short time spent among trees can have beneficial effects on our health.  WTF fun facts

Source: “10 more trees on your street could make you feel 7 years younger, study shows” — Washington Post

WTF Fun Fact 12826 – The Problem With Preferring Trees Over Grasslands

Apparently, we’re tree snobs. Unfortunately, preferring trees over grasslands actually ends up hurting the environment because grasslands are complex and much-needed ecosystems.

Still, we have to admit we love trees.

Why do we love forests?

In a recent article for The Atlantic, writer Julia Rosen pointed out a painful truth:

“Grasslands rank among the most imperiled and least protected biomes on Earth. They are disappearing even faster than forests, and much of what remains has suffered varying degrees of damage. Their decline threatens a huge chunk of the planet’s biodiversity, the livelihoods of roughly 1 billion people, and countless ecological services such as carbon and water storage. Yet these losses don’t register with the same force as deforestation. Perhaps because we do not notice, or perhaps because we do not care.”

We had no idea. Still, we find ourselves thinking that trees are just more helpful – but apparently, that’s wrong (or at least misguided).

Preferring trees over grasslands is “arboreal chauvinism”

Ok, we’re not fond of the term, but it does some interesting linguistic work when you think about it. A lot of us really do think of grasslands as flat and boring and…beige.

Of course, no one who is advocating for grasslands, such as prairies, is against trees. They’re just trying to raise our awareness and change our perspective so we can appreciate the need to value and conserve them.

In other words, it’s time to stop looking at prairie land as “deforested” area or proto-forests that simply aren’t fertile enough to grow trees – in fact, grasslands are their own special thing.

What’s the big deal with grasslands?

Well, for starters, the problem with disregarding grasslands in favor of trees and forests keeps prairie, savannah, and other grassland plants and animals off of conservation lists and open to extinction.

Check out this not-so-fun fact from The Atlantic: “Just 1 percent of Texas’s prairies remain intact. (Nationally, about half of native grasslands have already been converted to cropland or consumed by development, and millions more acres are lost each year.)”

To appreciate just some of what grasslands have to offer, consider this:

“Despite their apparent simplicity, grasslands are bastions of biodiversity. They support everything from large, charismatic megafauna (think lions and elephants) to humble pollinators and rare wildflowers. The Cerrado, for instance, is home to more than 12,000 plant species, a third of which occur nowhere else on Earth. And a mountain grassland in Argentina holds the world record for the most plant species found within a square meter of land: 89.”

That’s a lot of biodiversity to give up if we don’t remember that forests aren’t the only type of ecosystems we need to preserve.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “Trees Are Overrated” — The Atlantic

WTF Fun Facts 12706 – Oxygen From The Ocean

It’s easy to think all our oxygen comes from trees on land – and a LOT of it does (especially rainforests, which there are lots of, and which need protection). But, in fact, most of it comes from the oceans.

That’s a bit harder to believe, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Plankton, specifically phytoplankton, produce most of the Earth’s oxygen. It also serves as food for sea creatures, but they don’t do much else that makes them interesting to most people. They just float around, completely at the mercy of the currents. They’re green and cruddy and you might even look at them and think “eww.”

And that’s fine since they also can’t be offended.

Here’s the deal: even though oceanic phytoplankton isn’t nearly as pretty as trees, it does similar work for us. These little organisms mostly float along the surface of the water or the upper part of the ocean where light still penetrates. They require sunlight to live and grow and produce food for other ocean creatures. They contain chlorophyll to capture the sunlight. If you remember back to grade school science, you probably see where this is going – photosynthesis.

Our oceanic phytoplankton turns the energy from sunlight, as well as carbon dioxide, and mineral salts partly into oxygen. There’s a lot of other stuff going on there too (other byproducts of photosynthesis, like the sugar they feed on), but oxygen is the byproduct we care about at the moment since we need it to breathe.

The cool thing is that even if you don’t live anywhere near an ocean, you still get the benefits because of the way the planet works. Oxygen is great because it just fills the atmosphere and doesn’t need to be shipped via trucks and planes to far-off destinations.

Scientists estimate that 50-80% of the oxygen production that takes place on Earth comes from the ocean. That’s a big range, but even if you go with the more conservative number, it’s clear that we can’t live without them. However, a lot of that oxygen also goes back into the ocean for other ocean life that needs it.

Don’t get us wrong, we love rainforests and regular trees too. But phytoplankton is doing more work than other flora when it comes to keeping breathing creatures alive.

We can do things like track plankton and get some readings off them, but it’s hard to know exact numbers of what they’re producing at any given time. The amount of oxygen they give off can change with the time of day or the time of year. It can also change depending on how healthy the oceans are.

One problem is that things like dead and decaying plants and animals in the ocean also consume oxygen when they decompose. That’s just one reason why killing off aquatic life (such as coral reefs) can be bad for us.

But if you remember one thing, it should be that these tiny, single-celled creatures do a lot of work for us by not only producing oxygen but by absorbing some of the CO2 we emit.

Some people call them “the lungs of the sea.” – WTF fun facts

Source: “How much oxygen comes from the ocean?” — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

WTF Fun Fact 12703 – The Ancient Art of Topiary

The art of topiary has a long history and going in and out of style. And we’re not exactly sure who made the first shaped and trained tree or shrub or why.

While the word “topiary” is a 16th-century English term, it comes from the Lain topiarius, meaning ornamental gardener. You can find that word in letters from 1st/2nd century CE author Pliny the Younger’s letters. He described the Tuscan villa of Gaius Matius Calvinus as having many animals and other figures made out of cypress. He introduced the art to his friend Julius Caesar.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, no one really had time for topiary (or for ornamental gardens at all) for a couple of hundred years, although the art was largely preserved among monks who manicured their gardens. (Even a manicured hedge is technically a topiary.)

The artistic boom of the Renaissance brought topiary back into favor among those who could afford ornamental gardens and Italian villas were home to everything from topiary animals to giant bushy obelisks and pyramids.

Of course, many of us associate topiary with the French because of the gardens of Versailles, which is still a premier place to view them to this day. But each country had its own way of doing things – some favored large cones, others liked things at smaller scales.

English gardens are also famous for topiaries, but things got a bit out of hand as people became obsessed with more elaborate shapes and sizes.

By the 18th century, topiary was primed for a take-down as being both too trendy and too ridiculous in some of its forms. So when satirist Alexander Pope wrote a widely-read essay called “Verdant Sculpture” in the newspaper in September 1713, it seemed so spot-on that people were soon embarrassed by their elaborate mazes and giant tree animals. By the 1730s, many mansions had their topiaries removed as people decided they were unstylish in light of the mocking.

Of course, people who didn’t care about the trendiest way to garden still had them, but aristocrats didn’t push the art forward for another century and a half.

By the 1870s, the style became popular in England again and remains popular today.

The U.S. caught up to the gardening trend in the 1950s and 60s when Walt Disney decided to introduce topiaries to Disney World in the shape of his cartoon characters. Now topiary was portable as well and could be brought indoors, which coincided with the rise in popularity of the U.S. houseplant.

(And let’s not forget that many of us aged 40 and up remember Edward Scissorhands as the ultimate topiarist!)

Now you can find topiary around the world in all shapes and sizes, and it shows no sign of going out of style any time soon. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Topiary Tango” — Center for Architecture

WTF Fun Fact 12685 – A Pristine Forest In A Sinkhole

But there are 30 giant sinkholes throughout China, and explorers who rappelled down into one of them in May of 2022 discovered that nature was hiding something from us – a pristine, ancient forest. In fact, we know so little about this ecosystem that it would very well harbor wildlife we’re never seen before!

The sinkhole is 630 feet deep, 1,004 feet long, and 492 feet wide. Some of the trees inside the sinkhole are 130 feet tall!

While he was not involved in the expedition, George Veni, the executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) in the U.S, told Live Science more about these features:

“The discovery is no surprise, Veni told Live Science, because southern China is home to karst topography, a landscape prone to dramatic sinkholes and otherworldly caves. Karst landscapes are formed primarily by the dissolution of bedrock, Veni said. Rainwater, which is slightly acidic, picks up carbon dioxide as it runs through the soil, becoming more acidic. It then trickles, rushes and flows through cracks in the bedrock, slowly widening them into tunnels and voids. Over time, if a cave chamber gets large enough, the ceiling can gradually collapse, opening up huge sinkholes.”

He also said China was an ideal place to find sinkholes with something worthwhile inside: “So in China you have this incredibly visually spectacular karst with enormous sinkholes and giant cave entrances and so forth. In other parts of the world you walk out on the karst and you really don’t notice anything. Sinkholes might be quite subdued, only a meter or two in diameter. Cave entrances might be very small, so you have to squeeze your way into them.” 

The sinkhole is located in a UNESCO world heritage location in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, near Ping’e village in the county of Leye.

While we don’t usually think of sinkholes as harboring anything special, this one surely did. These giant sinkholes are called a “tiankeng” in Mandarin, meaning “heavenly pit.” –  WTF fun fact

Source: “Giant sinkhole with a forest inside found in China” — Live Science

WTF Fun Fact 12622 – Air Conditioning Trees

There’s no arguing with the fact that trees keep the planet alive. And we all know they help keep the Earth cool, though we may not know the exact mechanism by which they do it.

But the amount of influence trees can have over the climates in their immediate areas is still pretty stunning.

Even when trees grow in cities (relatively far apart and under conditions that are probably less ideal than, say, a forest), they can have a large cooling impact.

According to the EPA, cities sometimes create “heat islands”:

“An urban heat island (UHI) is an urban area or metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activities. The temperature difference is usually larger at night than during the day, and is most apparent when winds are weak.”

Tl; dr – Cities are hotter because of all the stuff we do there.

But what’s cool about trees (see what we did there?) is that they can lower both surface and air temperatures. We all know it’s cooler in the shade (sometimes by as much as 20-45 degrees F!), so that’s part of it. But there’s also something called evapotranspiration that plays a role. That’s the method by which water moves from the earth’s surface (the soil) up into the atmosphere. So, later, when we get precipitation, it can cool off our buildings and sidewalks.

Evapotranspiration (along with shading, in most cases) can reduce peak temperatures on a summer day by 2-9 degrees F.

And chances are that if you have a thoughtful city planning department, the trees planted around your nearest city are planted in very strategic locations to take advantage of this process. (For example, you may find more trees planted to the west of buildings to take advantage of maximum shade.)

There’s a very long list of the benefits of trees, but we’ll add a few that are less obvious about city trees:

  • They reduce energy usage by lowering the demand for air conditioning
  • They help with stormwater management after big storms by absorbing and filtering rainwater
  • They can reduce the need for constant pavement maintenance by keeping sidewalks, roads, and parking lots cool
  • They improve our quality of life, in part, by reducing noise pollution in cities.

Sometimes trees get in the way, but it’s critical to have them around (or replant them when we need to remove them). – WTF fun facts

Source: “Using Trees and Vegetation to Reduce Heat Islands” — US EPA