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Tree Stumps Are Dead, Right? This One Was Alive

EntertainmentTree Stumps Are Dead, Right? This One Was Alive

In a rain forest near Auckland, New Zealand, a leafless kauri tree stump rises a few feet off the ground. These trees can become giants: The country’s biggest, Tāne Mahuta, or the “Lord of the Forest,” has grown 168 feet high, with a 115-foot canopy.

But this stump is just a stump, so unassuming most would pass it by.

One day, two ecologists from Auckland University of Technology spotted it on a hike.

“A normal person would just think it’s dead. It looks dead to a point, but if you look a bit closer, you can see living tissue,” said Sebastian Leuzinger. “We both said to each other, ‘It’s clearly not dead. How does it live?’”

Naturalists have observed living tree stumps in New Jersey, the Sierra Nevadas, British Columbia and elsewhere. But for more than 150 years, how the stumps survived without leaves for photosynthesis was a mystery.

But during rainy days and at night, the stump drank and the tree shut down. The stump had somehow rerouted its circulatory system, and it seemed to take turns with the tree.

To confirm their hypothesis, the scientists will need to clear away soil to expose the roots. But their early finding strongly suggests the stump received and circulated water through grafted roots.

Why would a tree support a stump that can’t reproduce or make its own food? And for the stump, why bother?

“It’s a bit unlikely that the tree dies, and goes and knocks on the other trees’ doors and says, ‘Hey, can I get a little carbon off of you? I’m dead,’” said Dr. Leuzinger.

The stump may be an oddball that got lucky from a connection formed before it became a stump. And that could mean such connections are quite common, he suggested.

Natural root grafts have been reported in some 150 tree species. But how the roots fuse and the evolutionary reason for these grafts are buried mysteries.

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