Plant communication

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You probably thought the film “Avatar” was pure science fiction, but it isn’t only on the fictional planet of Pandora that trees use an underground social network to communicate with each other...

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Underground social network

Scandinavian birch forest, Vatnvatnet © Røed

Imagine if the plants in your garden could communicate with each other and warn each other of impending danger – or even throw out the odd tendril to trip up unwanted visitors!

Every Autumn, in the isolated birch forests of northern Scandinavia, swarms of grey moths lay their eggs on branches of birch trees so that in springtime, the newly hatched larvae can feast upon the luscious new leaves. You can just imagine the results the following Spring – hundreds of naked trees!

Surprisingly, the trees have developed a secret weapon. They have formed a friendship with the local rhododendron bushes and borrow the insecticide-type smell they put out, so frightening the moths away. “This kind of interaction has never been seen before,” says Jarmo Holopainen at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, who made the discovery.

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Plant communication

Image courtesy of WETA © 2007 Twentieth Century Fox

We know that plants respond to each other but only now are we realizing how sophisticated their social networking can be.

“Plants don’t go out to parties or to the cinema, but they do have a social network,” says Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia, Canada. “They support each other and they fight with each other. The more we look at plant signalling and communication, the more we learn – it is incredible.”

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References: New Scientist; Twentieth Century Fox; Suzanne Simard, University of British Columbia, Canada; Jarmo Holopainen, University of Eastern Finland.