The symbiotic relationships of Oak Trees in ecosystems and their significance for human well being


Oak Trees have been around for more than 80 million years and even though many of us do not give them a time of our day, they are an integral part of numerous ecosystems and if Oak Trees were to disappear many species would end up facing damaging consequences due to the lack of habitat and food. 

Up to 2300 species are known to be associated with oak trees in one way or another. Some have a symbiotic relationship with them, like squirrels that eat oak’s acorns or birds that nest on their branches, and some interact with them occasionally or have a more loose ecological relationship with them. 

All in all, they are important for many species, including us humans. We use Oaks for many purposes, including furniture, floors, barrels or tanning leather - all the things that reduce the number of Oak Trees significantly.  

Trees, in general, are also quite crucial for our mental health and wellbeing. How? The exposure to the greenery leads to an increase in dopamine production, which uplifts our mood and helps battle the stress. But that’s only the beginning.

If you want to know more about the magnificent impact that Oak Trees have on the ecosystems, various species and even our lives, read on. And if you want a detailed information on the relationship between oak trees and the 2300 species that it supports, you can explore the new feature of our Take3Breaths Meditation in The Workplace App, in which you can grow your own tree from the acorns and then, if you’re consistent with your meditation, you can get new organisms to visit your oak tree everyday and learn about their relationship with oak trees, as well as their habitat, food source, life expectancy, and more. 

An overview of oak trees' significance in ecosystems

Oak Trees are keystone species, which means that they help define the whole ecosystem and without them the whole ecosystem would face huge damage or even cease to exist. This is how important Oak Trees really are to the whole planet: without them many species would drop in numbers or even become endangered by extinction. 

It is a rather common knowledge that acorn seeds serve as food for numerous species, including white-tailed deer, squirrels, mice, voles, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, grey foxes, red foxes, and wild boars. According to the research done by University of Florida, the number of species that feed on acorns goes beyond 100, and that’s just the beginning when it comes to the many ways in which Oak Trees support organisms around the whole world.

Oak aids the living things around it not only through acorns but also through the flowers, leaves, bark and roots. The flowers and leaves growing on Oak Trees serve as food to many insects, including caterpillars of purple hairstreak butterfly (Favonius quercus) and dark-crimson underwing moth (Catocala sponsa) which rely solely on oak. The pollen from the flowers is also a desired food choice of bees, which are crucial for the survival of all the living beings on this planet. 

However, serving as a food source is only one part of many that oak trees play in our ecosystems. They also provide shade and shelter for a whole variety of organisms, such as birds, small mammals and insects. Their leaves and other organic matter contributes to nutrient cycling within ecosystems, they store huge amounts of carbon in their woody tissues and their impressive root system plays a role in improving soil health. They are very resilient long-lived trees that can withstand various environmental changes, which makes them an integral part of a stable ecosystem. 

The interconnectedness of oak trees with other organisms

To introduce you to this magnificent world of Oak Trees and the species they support, let’s dive into all the possible relationships that those spectacular trees can have with other organisms. 

The two most common relationships that Oak Trees share with the organisms living in their barks, feeding on their leaves, or helping themselves to the other resources produced by those trees, are Commensalism and Mutualism.

Oak Trees and commensalism

The first term mentioned above describes the relationship between organisms in which one of them benefits and the other is unaffected by the exchange. For example, Mosses and lichens, small, non-vascular plants, can grow on the branches and trunks of oak trees without causing any harm to the tree. These plants do not root in the soil but instead attach themselves to the bark or branches of the tree. They obtain support and elevation, which allows them to access better light, moisture, and nutrients from the air. It is important to note that both mosses and lichens play a very important role in creating a healthy habitat, because they absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the air.

As was already mentioned, Oak Trees also provide shelter and habitat for many organisms, including various types of moths, weevils, and butterflies.

It is worth noting that most of the symbiotic relationships that Oak Trees are part of are mutual ones, and some of the relationship it has are slightly mutual, meaning, for example, that the tree provides the organism with food and in turn the animal sometimes participates in the seed dispersal leading to the growth of Oak Trees and higher biodiversity around the world. 

Oak Trees and mutualism

Mutualism suggests that all the species involved in this relationship benefit from the interaction. One of the most interesting examples of mutualism in this case is the relationship tha oak tree roots have with fungi, which enhances nutrient uptake and overall ecosystem health. It’s one of many instances which shows the great impact that Oak Trees have not only on the singular organism but also on the whole ecosystem.

The other example that might give you the full picture, is the relationship between caterpillars, insects and birds. Oak Trees give a habitat and shelter to caterpillars and insects, as well as the source of food, and at the same time because of this it attracts birds which feed on caterpillars, insects and most of the time also acorns of the tree. The tree benefits from this interaction as well, because birds often take part in the dispersal of the acorns, which helps the trees grow in various places and expand its population.

As was already mentioned in the introduction, not only are oak trees important for the other organisms living in woodlands and greenlands, but they are also pretty useful to us humans, however our impact on them can often be very damaging for both the tree and the whole ecosystem. 

Mycorrhizal partnerships: Oak trees and fungi

Another type of symbiotic relationship that’s both very interesting and thrilling is Mycorrhizas, a mutually beneficial relationship between fungi and plant roots. What are the benefits for all the parties involved? 

  • Nutrient exchange and improved nutrient uptake 

  • Fungal carbon supply 

  • Enhanced resistance

  • Ecosystem impact

Mycorrhizal fungi allow plants to draw more nutrients and water from the soil, while also increasing plant tolerance to different environmental stresses. Even though there are many species of fungus which do not form these partnerships, the vast majority of land plants have mycorrhizae, and, in truth, many of them couldn’t survive without them.

The other benefit for the tree is that it becomes more resilient to pathogens, as well as environmental stressors, thanks to the fungi that protect the tree’s root system. In return for nutrients, the tree provides fungi with carbohydrates produced through photosynthesis. They serve as an energy source for the fungi and help them grow and expand. 

The mycorrhizal associations have an impact on the whole ecosystem as they contribute to nutrient cycling, soil stability and the overall sustainability of ecosystems. They promote health and diversity of plant communities, and show how important the cooperation in nature’s web of life is for the whole planet.

You can learn more about the curious relationship between different types of fungi and Oak Trees from our new feature that lets you grow your own tree. 

Threats to Oak Tree populations

One of the things that we’re guilty of is deforestation. Forests are often cleared for agriculture, urbanisation, infrastructure development, and timber extraction. This has led to the loss of oak tree habitats and a decline in their populations. As forests disappear, the rich biodiversity associated with oak ecosystems is threatened, and the ecological functions they perform, such as carbon sequestration and habitat provision, are compromised. 

Rapid urbanisation is especially harmful to the trees, because it fragments forests and alters ecosystems. Urban areas disrupt natural processes, such as water and nutrient cycling, and also lead to higher pollution levels. 

“Oak trees modify the composition, biomass and diversity of the herbaceous communities and generate a higher landscape-scale diversity” (Marañón et al., 2009), which is why it’s crucial for us to educate ourselves and understand the needs of those trees, preserve and restore oak tree habitats. 

There are many ways in which we can ensure that our oak trees are protected from the negative impact that our actions have on them. Conservation efforts that include establishing protected areas, creating wildlife corridors and implementing sustainable urban planning that incorporates green spaces, preserves natural habitats and minimises the ecological footprint, are only some of the measures that we can take. 

The ecological roles of Oak Trees 

We need Oak Trees to stay healthy and grow in numbers for many reasons, including, among other things: 

  • their impact on the existence of a stable diverse ecosystems

  • the survival of the keystone species

  • the nutrient cycling and soil health within ecosystems,

  • the lessening of the climate change through carbon storage

  • medicinal and Ethnobotanical Uses

  • the economical and cultural value 

To sum it all up let’s take a look at how Oak Trees support all the aspects mentioned above. 

Impact on Stable Diverse Ecosystems: Oak trees factor in maintaining stable and diverse ecosystems by supporting a variety of insects, birds, mammals and fungi, creating intricate ecological food webs, which support the overall health and resilience of ecosystems. As was mentioned above, their branches provide habitat for countless wildlife species and leaves, flowers and acorns are what many of the organisms feed on. 

Survival of Keystone Species: Oak trees not only are considered to be Keystone Species, but they also play a part in the survival of other keystone species, such as bees or red squirrels. It is known that Bees play an essential role in pollinating numerous plant species, including crops, and their decline would have cascading effects on the entire ecosystem and agricultural productivity. Since Oak Trees provide bees with a crucial source of nectar and pollen, they are actively aiding the species in their important work. 

Nutrient Cycling and soil Health within Ecosystems: Oak trees are essential when it comes to nutrient cycling within ecosystems. Their mycorrhizal associations and leaf litter decomposition serve a purpose of releasing nutrients into the soil, which enriches it and supports the growth of other plants. Thanks to this the entire ecosystem is kept healthy and fruitful. Oak leaves also contribute organic matter to the forest floor, further enriching the soil and promoting soil health.

Mitigation of Climate Change: Oak trees contribute to the lessening of climate change by storing carbon in their biomass and in the soil. Thanks to their longevity and large size they are effective carbon sinks that help to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and reduce all the negative effects of global warming.

Medicinal and Ethnobotanical Uses: Oak trees have been used for medicinal and ethnobotanical purposes for centuries. Various parts of the oak, including the bark and acorns, have been used in traditional medicine and for tanning, dyeing, and crafting tools, which shows how culturally and historically significant they are. 

Economic and Cultural Value: Oak trees hold economic and cultural value worldwide. They are harvested for high-quality timber used in furniture, flooring, and construction. Additionally, oaks have cultural and symbolic significance in many societies, often representing strength, longevity, and resilience. Just like other trees, they also contribute to human well-being as their presence can have a very positive effect on our overall mental health. 

Oak trees and their impact on human well-being

It was mentioned at the end of the last section that oak trees also contribute to the cultural aspects of our life. That’s because they, with other trees, create a space for us to hike, run, camp and observe wildlife. Without our woodlands we would have very few places that could provide us with shelter from the traffic noise and the fast-paced life that we live in everyday. Woodlands and greenlands give us the space that’s separate from all the stressors and troubles, a space for calming down and breathing in the fresh air, a space for exercising and taking care of both our physical and mental health. 

Natural environments and forests are extremely valuable when it comes to the quality of life and well-being of urban populations. Why is that? It’s long been recognized that humans have a biological need to connect with nature. Some 20 years ago, American biologist E. O. Wilson noted that humans are “hardwired” to connect with the natural world, and that being in nature had a profoundly positive effect on human health, and today’s research shows that even as much as 10 minutes spent in nature can positively impact your mental health. If you add meditation and mindfulness to it, you’ll get even more positive results on your journey to being happy, calm and productive. 

As of now, the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” is spreading widely across the world, and gaining more and more followers. This practice, that originated in Japan back in the 1980s, is a practice of “bathing” or in other terms immersing oneself in nature with the intention of receiving therapeutic benefits. The actual practice is very simple: you should take some time off your busy schedule, go to the densely forested area and spend your time there either walking or sitting mindfully surrounded by the soothing sight of trees. 

To enhance the positive effects of walking in nature, you can also try guided walking meditation, or simply focus on your breath in one of the few breathing techniques that are proven to work wonders on our mental health. 

Research conducted in 24 countries shows that practising Shinrin-yoku (eng. Forest bath) “can reduce concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, increase parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve energy.” Additionally,  you can use the time spent in the forest to practise both mindfulness and meditation, which add to the benefits listed above. Other benefits for both your physical and mental health that come from spending time in nature are, among others: 

  • Reduced exposure to air and noise pollutants

  • Improved respiratory health thanks to fresh air

  • Exposure to the natural sunlight (vitamine D and regulation of circadian rhythms)

  • Reduced symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression

  • boosts the immune system

  • lowers blood pressure

  • improves mood

  • increases ability to focus, even in children with ADHD

  • accelerates recovery from surgery or illness

  • increases energy level

  • improves sleep

As you can see, Oak Trees have an incalculable value for numerous beings living on Earth, including humans. The impact they have on the Earth and the whole ecosystem is incredible, and it shows how crucial even one tree can be to many organisms and beings around the world. The more people become aware of the connections and impact the species that Oak Trees support have on our lives, the more we can try and improve certain aspects of our lives to not damage the habitat of these trees and to ensure that they can keep growing and keep helping life thrive on this Earth. 

Now that you know why Oak Trees are incredible, you may want to join us in growing your own Oak Tree and bringing all the organisms it supports to it in our new feature that you can unlock by meditating everyday.