For the first time ever, scientists were able to prove that plants can make decisions based on the perceived level of risk and variable conditions.
If that’s not the first step toward sentient plants, able of thinking and moving to their own accord – Harry Potter’s Whomping Willow, anyone? – I don’t know what is.
On a more serious note, however, scientists discovered that pea plants were putting out more roots if placed in pots of soil with higher levels of nutrients, similar to the animals’ behavior of devoting more energy and resources to foraging and hunting when food is plenty.
Then, researchers separated the pea plant’s roots in two pots with variable conditions. One pot was offering the plant a constant level or nutrients while the second one sustained rising and falling levels.
The soil in one pair of pots was consistently of poor quality, while the solid in another pair featured an above average supply of nutrients.
According to the researchers’ hypothesis, the plants would choose to “grow more roots in the variable soil when the constant quality was low, and opt to devote root resources to the constant pot when soil quality was better.”
Surprisingly so, the pea plants’ roots followed this exact prediction. Their adaptive behavior is much like the decision making that takes place in the human brain when we’re faced with risk variables. In general, humans are more likely to gamble or take risks when they’re less at stake. When times are good, taking a risk comes with less gain.
“To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of an adaptive response to risk in an organism without a nervous system,” said Alex Kacelnik, a zoologist and researcher at Oxford University.
The authors explained that their study’s purpose was not to prove that plants are somehow intelligent, like other animals or humans. Instead, their focus was on showing that they are rather complex and act on particularly interesting behaviors.
Theoretically, their findings could be classified as biological adaptations, as the plants have developed processes that help them exploit natural opportunities as efficiently as possible.
Published in the journal Current Biology, the study suggests other varying models of behavioral economics could be used to predict this interesting decision making of plants.
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