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Bad news for vegetarians! Plants can ‘hear’ themselves being eaten – and become defensive when attacked

  • Researchers from the University of Missouri found plants respond to attack
  • They discovered the sound of caterpillars eating made them more defensive
  • Plants that heard caterpillar sounds released more mustard oils, which are unappealing to caterpillars and thus ward them off
  • But plants that heard the wind, despite having a similar acoustic sound, knew not to waste their defensive capabilities
  • This suggests plants are able to identify sounds in their environment

Most people don’t give a second thought when tucking into a plate of salad.But perhaps we should be a bit more considerate when chomping on lettuce, as scientists have found that plants actually respond defensively to the sounds of themselves being eaten.

The researchers at the University of Missouri (MU) found that plants can identify sounds nearby, such as the sound of eating, and then react to the threats in their environment.

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article-2677858-1F54D28100000578-848_634x569Researchers at the University of Missouri have determined that plants respond to the sounds that caterpillars make when eating and that the plants then respond with more defenses. Here a cabbage butterfly caterpillar feeds on an Arabidopsis plant with a piece of reflective tape helping to record vibrations

‘Previous research has investigated how plants respond to acoustic energy, including music,’ said Heidi Appel, senior research scientist in the Division of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the Bond Life Sciences Center at MU.

‘However, our work is the first example of how plants respond to an ecologically relevant vibration.

‘We found that “feeding vibrations” signal changes in the plant cells’ metabolism, creating more defensive chemicals that can repel attacks from caterpillars.’

Appel collaborated with Rex Cocroft, professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at MU.

In the study, caterpillars were placed on Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard.

Using a laser and a tiny piece of reflective material on the leaf of the plant, Cocroft was able to measure the movement of the leaf in response to the chewing caterpillar.

Cocroft and Appel then played back recordings of caterpillar feeding vibrations to one set of plants, but played back only silence to the other set of plants.

When caterpillars later fed on both sets of plants, the researchers found that the plants previously exposed to feeding vibrations produced more mustard oils, a chemical that is unappealing to many caterpillars.

‘What is remarkable is that the plants exposed to different vibrations, including those made by a gentle wind or different insect sounds that share some acoustic features with caterpillar feeding vibrations did not increase their chemical defenses,’ Cocroft said.

‘This indicates that the plants are able to distinguish feeding vibrations from other common sources of environmental vibration.’


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