Mutualisms at the Arboretum

Research fellow in the woods doing field work
Enjoying field work in the east woods

The idea of different species interacting with each other and living together is a major part of ecology and very commonly studied by ecologists. It is also one of my favorite parts about nature. These interactions are called symbiotic relationships, and one particular type of symbiotic relationship is a mutualism. Mutualisms occur when different species interact and they both benefit from the interaction.


There are four different ways that I have seen mutualisms this week. The first, and most obvious, is in my research project. I am studying the effects of tree-fungi interactions on the soil. In these mutualisms, fungi grow in conjunction with tree roots and help the trees gain some nutrients from the soil. The trees provide other nutrients for the fungi. The trees and fungi gain so much more living together than they would living alone.


Fungi growing on a tree stump
Not exactly the tree-fungi interaction I'm studying, but it looks pretty cool!

The second mutualism I have seen this week is between all the scientists at the arboretum. Everyone working here is human, so we are technically all the same species, but everyone comes from very different backgrounds and specializes in very different areas. In the research department, there are volunteers, interns, research assistants, primary researchers, and everyone in between all with very specific knowledge and skill sets in different areas! Each scientist here has a specific focus and projects that they are working on, and independently these projects wouldn’t really mean much. However, when all the knowledge and research is combined it creates a beautiful understanding of the world that could never be achieved by only one mind.

Researcher wearing tree champion super hero cape standing next to a tree in the morton arboretum
One of the goals all the scientists are working towards is being champions of trees!

The third, and most personal, mutualism I have seen this week is between all the URFs (undergraduate research fellows). The four of us are all from very different backgrounds, but we now work and live together. We have all gotten to be very close within just two weeks and draw on our different backgrounds to have some really cool adventures. We each have different philosophies of life and different skills and traits, so we learn a lot just by talking to each other and hanging out. For instance, a couple nights ago we were walking through a park and, as true biologists, trying to identify all the trees we passed. We approached one tree that Mackenzie was convinced was an Acer negundo, but Kirsten was sure was a Boxelder maple. We figured out that Acer negundo is the scientific name for Boxelder maple. Through our mutualism, we all now know the common name AND scientific name for this tree!

After our scientific walk through the park, we got ice cream with cookie dough on it. This is the fourth and most delicious mutualism I learned about this week. Cookie dough and ice cream really help each other increase their chances of being enjoyed by hungry scientists!

Research fellows eating cookie dough and ice cream
We have concluded that ice cream and cookie dough work together to make each other even more delicious!