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Plants Can Actually “Hear” and “Talk”

Plants seem to be pretty boring. They appear to just sit in one place all their lives and do nothing except grow – then die.

When you look closely, though, plants are rather interesting. They interact with the world around them more than we typically think they do.

It Turns Out Plants Can “Hear”

Researchers at the University of Missouri found out that plants respond to the sound that caterpillars make when they crunch on leaves.  When they played a recording of that sound to Arabidopsis thaliana plants (“mustard weed”), the plants who “heard” the sound produced more mustard oil – a chemical that is unappealing to caterpillars.

An interesting part of the study is that they exposed the plants to similar vibrations or sounds that other insects make when munching on leaves, but the plants didn’t respond by releasing the defenses.  Only when they played the sound of the caterpillars munching on leaves did the plants respond by releasing extra mustard oil when the researchers put the caterpillars on the plants.

Plants Can “Talk” to Each Other to Warn of Danger

Plants that have “runners” – horizontal stems that connect different plants to each other underground – share information with each other to warn the other plants about predators and potential enemies.

Some of these “runner” plants include strawberries, ground elder, clover, bamboo, and reed.

Even plants that are not connected by runners have been shown to communicate with each other.  About 20 years ago, ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered that trees communicate their needs and send each other nutrients via a network of latticed fungi buried in the soil.

She later did more research and found that trees use these underground fungal networks to send warning signals about environmental change, search for kin, and transfer their nutrients to neighboring plants before they die.

Another study published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Plant Science showed that when the mustard weed plant gets wounded, it sends chemicals into the air in order to warn its neighbors of danger.

Plants Respond to Music, too

Chinese researchers played “green” music (i.e., classical music and nature sounds) to one set of cabbage plants and compared them to plants for which no music was played. The plants who “heard” the music showed higher levels of oxygen uptake and elevated polyamine levels. This is one more study lending credence to the theory that plants can “hear” (or sense sound waves) and respond by changing their biochemistry as a result.

Another study published in 2004 showed a similar effect. Music was played to okra and zucchini seeds that were germinating. The results showed that music had a “highly statistically significant effect on the number of seeds sprouted compared to the untreated control over all five experiments”.

The effect was independent of temperature, seed type, position in room, specific petri dish, and person doing the scoring. Seeds exposed to indiscriminate noise showed no improved germination and growth, but plants exposed to “healing energy” also showed greater germination and growth, indicating that plants respond to sound and energy vibrations.

Plants May Use Sound to Communicate with One Another

Monica Gagliano, a plant physiologist at the University of Western Australia, found that corn seedling’s roots emit a 220-Hertz purr, and the roots emit clicks of a similar tune. A different study from the same group showed that chili seedlings quicken their growth when a nasty sweet fennel plant is nearby, sealed off from the chilies in a box that only transmits sound, not scent.

There is evidence that insects and plants “hear” each other’s sounds, as well. Bees buzz at just the right frequency to release pollen from tomatoes and other flowering plants. And bark beetles may pick up the air bubble pops inside a plant, which tells the beetles that the trees are experiencing stress from drought.

 

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