Herby, the hibiscus, was spending a regular afternoon basking in the sun. He had his leaves turned at just the right angle so the sunrays would hit them well. He could hear the gentle breeze flowing through the balcony when suddenly, a sound caught his attention.
Crunch munch crunch.
“What was that!” Was it the chirping of the neighbourhood cricket? But crickets don’t chirp during the day….so what could it be? There it was again!
Crunch munch crunch.
Herby was now perplexed. What was making that sound! Is it dangerous? Should he alert the other plants? And that’s when he spotted the culprit. It was Capers, the caterpillar, and he was eating Herby’s beautiful green leaves!
Crunch munch crunch.
Did that story sound like something we made up? Let’s face it, a plant hearing an insect is impossible. Isn’t it?
Plants, in fact, can hear sounds around them, and they do this without having ears!
Often we think of plants as beings because they stay in one place and don’t appear to be doing anything. But scientists argue that because plants are rooted in a place, they need to be more aware of their surroundings. Unlike animals, plants can’t run away during danger or move to a new place to find food.
So how do plants assess their surroundings? With a whole range of plant senses that we humans cannot see! Let’s investigate more, shall we?
Insect Chatter: Sense of hearing in plants
Just like Herby in the story, research has shown that plants can hear sounds that are important for their survival. These include sounds from insects and the sounds made by wind. Plants can even differentiate between the songs that insects sing (that are harmless) and the sounds they make when they’re eating leaves!
Green Moves: Sense of proprioception in plants
Proprioception is the sense through which we know the position of different body parts. This helps us move our body parts the way we want to. For example, when we dance, we know where our hands and legs are, and that’s why we can move them according to the rhythm. Plants can do this too! It is with the help of this proprioception that plants move. Watch this video to know how plants move.
Tasting the soil: Sense of taste in plants
Our tongues can taste food when the chemicals in it dissolve in water and saliva in our mouth. This helps us differentiate when something is bitter (and may be harmful) and when something is sweet (maybe a good source of food). Similarly, plants can detect soluble chemicals and understand what those chemicals mean. They use this, especially to detect if they’re under attack. Where do they do this? In the part of their body that’s always in contact with water – the roots.
Looking Up: Sense of sight in plants
In one of Charles Darwin’s famous studies, he was able to experimentally show that plants bend towards the light. How do they know where the source of light is? Of course, they see it! Just like how we have receptors for light in our eyes, plants have “photoreceptors” (photo=light) all over their leaves and stem. This helps them find light, figure out which direction it is coming from, and how far away is the source!
Towards the end of the story above, Herby was wondering if he should warn the other plants about any danger. Did you question how he was planning on doing this? Plants may be able to hear some sounds, but they definitely don’t have a mouth to speak or shout, do they? Even animals are capable of making a wide variety of roars, barks, grunts, and chirps to talk to each other. So since plants can’t make noises, can they still communicate?
Yes, they can!
Plants have a whole “underground” network of communication that happens through their roots!
Read more stories like these here:
Saluting the environmentalist Thimmakka!
Know the science behind animal ears!
Deepthi is an ambivert who is on a steady diet of good food, filter coffee, and self-improvement. Being an ardent reader, storytelling has been her first love and she enjoys exploring how to convey stories compellingly. Having studied psychology and experienced the learning and development field, Deepthi is driven to understand human behavior and to know what makes each of us unique. You are most likely to find her tucked into a cozy corner at a local cafe with a Kindle or a book in hand. If you find her there, stop by and say hello, she'd be eager to learn your story too. Until then, you can ping her at [email protected] for anything you may like to share.
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