Trees and plants and the like can, in fact, talk to each other, but not in the way we think of it. In the Douglas fir forests of Canada, for example, trees form symbiotic, subterranean relationships with fungi. The oldest, tallest trees give their excess sugar to the fungi, the fungi provide the trees with soil nutrients, and soon this develops into a wider network involving plenty of trees.
One thing that this fungal network makes possible is the communication of distress signals. A new study, led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), explores various ways in which distress signaling works.
As these spectacular videos show, flora like the mustard plant Arabidopsis is able to use a combination of specific chemicals to send out warning flares to its brethren over long distances. In this case, long distances refer to across a single plant, rather than underground in a forest – but this new Science study does highlight just how adept plants are at communicating in this way.
In fact, in some ways, their signaling methods aren’t too dissimilar from that of animals.
Looking at Arabidopsis – a plant often used in studies thanks to its well-documented genome, among other things – botanist Masatsugu Toyota, formerly of UWM but now at Saitama University, was originally studying how plants’ internal communication relays, involving calcium ions, deal with things like gravity.
Per ScienceAlert, in order to research this, he tweaked the genes of the mustard plant that caused it to express a protein that fluoresces around the ever-changing calcium ion hotspots. As it happened, this revealed a lot more about the internal networks than he or his colleagues bargained for.