Do you think trees talk to each other like us? In The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – —Discoveries from a Secret World, author Peter Wohlleben claims that plants do indeed communicate with each other. According to scientists, however, the answer is slightly different: while trees and plants are known to exchange information amongst themselves and other organisms through the release of specific chemicals, the phenomenon is not exactly a form of communication in the true sense.
Have you ever wondered why certain plants have unique scents, like the smell of freshly-mowed grass? In this case, for instance, the aroma of the grass is its very own distress signal, released when it is injured or attacked. As explained by researchers, many of these smells are made up of chemicals that in turn alert neighboring plants of impending attack or danger. At times, these chemicals are also meant to signal predatory insects to come and defend the trees.
This is also true when plants are afflicted with infections as well as when they are being eaten by other organisms or even humans. Alerted by the smell-borne chemicals, the nearby trees start producing toxins and other substances that make them less vulnerable and sometimes, indigestible to other animals. According to Stuart Thompson, a professor of plant biochemistry at the University of Westminster, chemicals emitted by plants of a particular geographical location tend to differ slightly from those elsewhere, despite belonging to the same species.
Thompson, however, points out that the phenomenon isn’t a mechanism of communication in the correct sense of the word, and is strictly limited to passing on information to neighboring trees by secreting specific chemicals. Scientific research suggests that the process originated as a means to send messages swiftly to different parts of the same plant. Thompson writes:
I respond to the chemicals released by frying onions but that doesn’t mean that the onions are talking to me. So are these really messages or just the opportunist use of chemical information in the environment?
Instead of sending a message through the plant’s body, which could easily be a distance of up to 10 meters, a chemical signal can research the destination faster by traveling through air. In addition to internal messaging, the mechanism also ensures quick and efficient exchange of information among multiple trees. Thompson states:
However, releasing chemicals into the environment is indiscriminate and other plants and organisms can take advantage. Sometimes these chemical ‘messages’ can attract pests or parasites. The smell of crushed sage doesn’t protect it from humans, for example… rather the opposite.
It is important to note, however, that most plants rely on a symbiotic relationship with fungi present in the soil. The trees offer the fungi sugar as sustenance, with the latter in turn aiding the plants to gather nutrients as well as water. In many cases, the soil fungi extends underground, joining a number of trees in a sort of network. When one of these plants is attacked, the remaining members of the network immediately prepare themselves for imminent danger. Thompson calls the intriguing process “Wood Wide Web”, writing:
The messages are relayed by the fungus and perhaps it is the one really using the information, gathering it from one of its host plants and passing it on to the others to protect its ‘revenue’.
Despite is many advantages, this mechanism of communication may result in messages meant only for friends and family to be relayed to other trees not related to the sender. In the article, which was originally published in The Conversation, Thompson goes on to say:
In this way, fungi is a bit like a social media company, listening into and benefiting from its users’ posts… So we return to the question of whether any of these examples are communication in the sense that we would mean it. Anything that makes people think more about plants is good, but perhaps making trees seem more like us can lead us to overlook their essential nature.
Source: The Conversation