The veiled prowess of plants

Acacia trees with rainbow behind
Acacia trees with clouds and rainbow in the background © Grantotufo | Dreamstime.com

Often times, we mentally consider living things as those which move, namely animals, fish, insects etc. One of the reasons for this is for how our vision has evolved throughout the ages, specialised to discern moving objects from a familiar surrounding.

Plants on the other hand, move significantly slower than other living beings, so it is only natural we at times forget that they also have a large spectrum of processes going on inside them. Indeed, there is often a much greater course of action going on within and between these marvellous beings than meets the eye.

Every day in forests, it is a glorious battle of natural selection for vital resources among plants, each fighting to grasp the most sunlight while proliferating roots as far as possible to reach water. Like between animals, the weak eventually don’t make it while the tree that takes up a good position will grow tall, spreading it’s seeds further than the other trees.

Surely we all have some knowledge of the defence systems of plants. These usually aren’t aimed at the other earth-bound beings, but rather at pesky animals or insects that would aspire to consume them. Such defence systems are split into three categories: Physical, Chemical and Biological.

The spikes found on roses are a prime example of a physical defence which many of us have witnessed in person, many others however, aren’t as obvious.

In 1983, biologists provided the first arguments for the idea that plants could communicate, based on evidence gathered from maple trees. Later on, it was discovered that several other species of trees such as the Acacia could communicate on a similar, airborne principal.

In the year 1990, an entire population of kudu antelopes died in the span of one week in a nature reserve in South Africa, with no natural predators who could have hunted them down. Upon closer inspection and autopsy, the veterinarians found that the antelopes’ liver enzymes ceased functioning due to high levels of tannin, leading to liver failure and death.

The most commonly occurring food in the reserve for the antelopes were the Acacia trees. The leaves of the tree naturally contain a concentration of tannins which can be harmful to the liver in large quantities. When one tree starts to lose an important amount of its leaves, it automatically increases the concentration of tannin in its leaves while simultaneously emitting ethylene into the air, notifying the other trees of the danger.

Seemingly, the antelopes had at one point damaged a lot of the leaves on several trees, causing them to communicate the situation to the near-lying Acacias downwind. Those, having been warned of the kudu attack answered with full force, devastating the entire population of the reserve.

This kind of outcome leaves us to wonder of the mysteries yet to be solved regarding the secretive nature of plants. Though bound to remain in a small radius, the evolution cycle of the flora through millions of generations is not to be underestimated.

Many enticing mechanisms reign the world of plants and only recently are we discovering some of the potential that these beings have. Maybe instead of fearing artificial intelligence turning on us, we should start thinking of not angering the plants which might poison us in our sleep.