24 February, 2020
Nature is incredible. And if you had any doubts, a new discovery that plants produce sounds of distress may dispel them.
A study at Tel Aviv University has found that, when they are in need of water or when their stems are cut, tobacco and tomato plants emit ultrasonic sounds (so not quite on the level of the fictional screaming Mandrake), which correlate to the specific source of their stress. Plants in the study that weren’t stressed were mostly silent. What’s more, different plants react differently: tobacco plants seem more distressed by being cut while tomato plants are most aggrieved by drought.
It’s not yet clear why plants have evolved to cry when stressed or what affect this has on wildlife, but the researchers speculate that insects, like moths, may hear these frequencies and choose, for example, not to lay eggs on plants that are water-distressed.
Whilst the revelation is fascinating in itself, what’s also interesting are its potential agricultural applications through precision farming techniques. With climate change causing more unpredictable weather patterns, being able to monitor plants’ cries for help could help farmers to more efficiently tend to their crops, and, who knows, even anticipate droughts that plants have picked up on before they do.