Are Plants Intelligent?

by J.D. Roth on 10 January 2014 · 0 comments

in Plants

In A Fire Upon the Deep, the 1992 science-fiction novel from Vernor Vinge, the action takes place in a vast galaxy populated by a variety of interesting alien species. On one planet, there’s a race of canines that operate with hive minds. Elsewhere, there’s a race of trees that can speak with fronds and which move about on mechanical platforms. (The 1999 prequel A Deepness in the Sky features another interesting race, one resembling spiders.)

Before that, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings featured the Ents, a hyper-intelligent (and powerful) race of tree-like beings that existed in a world that largely ignored (or was unaware of) them. The Ents moved and talked s-l-o-w-l-y, but because their lives were long, they had amazing memories and tons of wisdom.

In our real world, few people give credence to the idea that plants might possess intelligence. The notion seems absurd. Yet a recent article in the The New Yorker by Michael Pollan has raised the question: How smart are plants?

Pollan discusses past research into this question, including the best-selling (but flawed) 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants. But he spends most of his time discussing current research into the subject of plant intelligence. He interviews a number of scientists, including Daniel Chamovitz, author of What a Plant Knows.

Proponents of plant intelligence argue that:

The sophisticated behaviors observed in plants cannot at present be completely explained by familiar genetic and biochemical mechanisms. Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and coördinate a plant’s behavioral response.

Those who believe that plants are intelligent say that “it is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success.”

Detractors argue that those who believe plants are intelligent are anthropomorphizing (a charge still leveled at many folks who believe animals are intelligent). Too, there’s debate over the definition of “intelligence” — and the definitions of other words that describe how organisms interact with their environment. According to Pollan, the debate isn’t over what plants do, but over how these actions should be labelled and classified.

In many ways, plants are like an alien species. Though they account for 99% of the biomass on this planet, their lives are strange to us:

  • They’re sessile. That is, they’re permanently rooted to one spot.
  • They’re modular. Humans (and most other animals) don’t have redundant parts. And if we lose certain organs, we die. But a plant can lose up to 90% of its body without being killed.
  • They have no central nervous system. They have no brain. We have a single organ dedicated to mental processes. Plants seem to derive what intelligence they may have from the tips of their roots.
  • When plants communicate, they do so with chemicals rather than motion or sound.
  • As noted earlier, plants exist on a different time scale than we do. They move so slowly that their actions seem imperceptible to us.
  • Plants “eat” light.

In his article, Pollan describes research into plant behaviors that resemble what we might call “learning” or “decision-making”. He discusses whether or not plants feel pain. He also talks about communication and cooperation and, amazingly enough, simple plant “economies” in which different species trade with each other.

Here’s a video clip that demonstrates some plant behavior that resembles intelligence:

What do you think? Is it possible that plants are intelligent? If so, what are the implications?

I first explored the idea of plant intelligence at this site more than six years ago. If you’d like more on this subject, Pollan did a follow-up interview on NPR’s “Science Friday”.

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One reason I’ve decided to begin posting again at Animal Intelligence is that I’ve discovered a reliable source for new videos about animal behavior. Video-aggregator Wimp.com (one of my favorite sites) regularly features clips of animals doing amazing things. And doing normal things, just like this:

Yes, it’s just a sloth eating carrots. There’s nothing particularly intelligent (or notable) about it, but it’s the sort of thing I intend to post here. In fact, anytime Wimp links to an animal video, I’ll share it at Animal Intelligence — with more “color”, if I can find it. (In this case, all I can tell you is that this sloth’s name is Chewbacca.)

If you know of any other place I can find regular material to share here, please share it. I’ll add it to my list!

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It’s been a l-o-n-g time since I wrote at Animal Intelligence. Too long. I intend to put an end to that. Instead of sitting on the stories I find, I’ll share them as soon as possible, even if I don’t have time to research additional background information.

To kick things off, here’s the story of Buddy, the talking starling:

Debbie Bingham from Morven, New Zealand, found Buddy while out for a morning stroll. The fledgling was lying on the ground, apparently dead. But when Bingham picked him up, he began to move his beak. Bingham nursed the bird back to health.

Bingham is a kindergarten teacher. One day, while taking Buddy to school to show her students, he began to speak. Now the three-year-old bird can speak several phrases — and is learning more all the time.

For more info, see the extended story from New Zealand’s 3 News. Also, here’s a two-year-old story about Buddy.

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Slow-Motion Owl

by J.D. Roth on 09 August 2011 · 0 comments

in Behavior,Movies

Here’s a short, slow-motion clip of an owl in flight:

Not so much about animal intelligence as it is about the beauty and grace of the animal kingdom.

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I first took note of this phenomena a few years ago. Around fall, it’s like all of the sudden the squirrels somehow get a lot dumber and practically throw themselves under cars. This year it seemed to have started even earlier. My suspicion was that after a few good summer months of gorging themselves on garden bounty (such as every last piece of fruit in my yard!) they go into a food coma that slows them down to something approaching light speed.

Well in short, it’s not a food coma. I found this article in The Seattle Times describing the phenomena and even speaking to biologists who have dubbed it the “fall shuffle”.  Food does play a part in the way of increasing squirrel populations if there is a good acorn harvest. If you’ve ever visited Portland in summer and fall you would know it is every greedy squirrel’s dream. More fruit and nuts than even these tiny bandits could possibly consume. Apparently while they are gorging all summer they are also engaging in more carnal delights and right about now there are a bunch of baby squirrels running around (After having read this article I did notice more babies around, their tails are much less bushy).

So the wee babes are running around (insert hilarious why did the squirrel cross the road joke here) getting picked off by cars on their quest for food. Even worse though, from the article:

Compounding the situation, squirrels are particularly active just after dawn and just before dusk, which coincides this time of year with morning and evening rush hours, a convergence that is bad news for squirrels.

That zigzag behavior, of course, is a defensive response to throw off predators.

But a car is another matter.

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Though I suspect many of you have seen this by now, here’s a disturbing story from Coventry, England. Mary Bale was out for a walk when a cat jumped up to greet her. She petted the cat like any normal person would — but then she picked it up and threw it in the trash! How can we be sure? The cat’s owner got it on video:

When caught, Bale tried to play it off as a joke. Ha ha! Pretty hilarious that Lola the cat was trapped in the trash for fifteen hours. Nobody’s buying it, though, especially since the video quite clearly shows her checking to be sure nobody’s looking.

Fortunately, Lola’s owner rescued her. He then put the footage on YouTube and started a Facebook page to track down the culprit. When discovered, Bale apologized. Sort of. Here’s a bit from the Daily Mail:

Speaking yesterday at her parents’ home in Coventry, Miss Bale said: ‘I want to take this opportunity to apologise profusely for the upset and distress that my actions have caused. I cannot explain why I did this, it is completely out of character and I certainly did not intend to cause any distress to Lola or her owners. It was a split second of misjudgment that has got completely out of control.

But she claimed the outcry had been blown out of all proportion: ‘I don’t know what the fuss is about. It’s just a cat.’

No word yet on whether charges will be pressed against Bale.

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19 September 2010

From Indoor Cat to Outdoor Cat (or, Why I Am Not a Bad Dad)

3 comments

I’ve been swamped at my other sites making preparations for a long vacation, so I haven’t had a chance to share any animal stories, despite the fact that people are sending me them in droves. (Thanks for that, by the way.) However, I did want to take some time to respond to concerns raised in [...]

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8 September 2010

Do Lions and Tigers Like Catnip?

10 comments

I’ve always been fascinated by the similarities — and differences — between big animals and their domesticated counterparts. Take cats, for example. Do lions and tigers purr? (Answer: Sort of. Your neighborhood tabby purrs while inhaling and exhaling; big cats purr only when they breathe out.) And while I’ve been reading Animals in Translation, I’ve [...]

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7 September 2010

The Raccoons on My Porch

20 comments

My cat Toto is aging, and as she ages, her body is failing her. Mentally, she seems sharp, but after sixteen years, Toto’s hips are causing her obvious trouble. In fact, they make it so that she can’t use a litterbox effectively. She tries to squat, but mostly she just pisses out the back end [...]

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7 September 2010

Turtle and Tortoise Intelligence

5 comments

Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching and re-watching ET — who resembled an overgrown deshelled turtle — that I feel such an affinity for these little dudes. For cold-blooded reptiles, turtles and tortoises are adorable. To see one helping up a buddy, as in the following video, well that just amps up the cute [...]

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5 September 2010

Two-Legged Kittens

2 comments

In the past, animals with birth defects and physical abnormalities didn’t stand a chance of survival. But modern medicine — and increased animal domestication — has given some of these critters a second leash on life. Here’s the story of Grace, the two-legged kitten. This local news story from April 2008 profiles Amazing Grace, a [...]

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4 September 2010

How Otter Pups Learn to Swim

1 comment

Did you know that otters have to be taught to swim? These cute little critters aren’t born with an affinity for water. When they’re about a month old, their mother has to teach them to enter the water, to float, and then to swim. Here’s a video from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in which [...]

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