If you go down in the woods today, you might catch a clutch of trees sharing a carbon picnic. That's the conclusion of a study that involved carbon labelling five Norwegian Spruce trees in a forest over a five year period.
Tamir Klein and his colleagues at the University of Basel in Switzerland, writing in Science, used tall cranes and a system of pipes to administer carbon dioxide that had been depleted for a heavier form of carbon called carbon-13.
Dosing the trees with this lighter form of carbon dioxide gave them a characteristic carbon signature that the team were then able to follow through the trees' tissues and also down into their roots.
The researchers studied the trees they were treating and also other trees growing nearby that were from a range of different species.
But the roots and stems of the neighbouring trees were strongly labelled with the carbon signature showing that carbon-containing chemicals made by the labelled spruce trees were being traded with other nearby tree species.
The level of labelling was so strong that it suggests that up to 4% of the carbon extracted from the air by a forest - or nearly a quarter of a tonne of carbon per hectare per year - is being exchanged between tree species in their roots.
The findings are a surprise. Although scientists knew previously that plants exchange some nutrients with underground fungi, and there was some evidence that nearby trees of the same species can occasionally link up and form root grants that allow nutrient exchange, the scale of the carbon exchange detected in this new study is quite staggering.