Are Plants Intelligent?

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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A Sloth Eating Carrots

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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Buddy the Talking Starling

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

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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Fall Shuffle, not a cute little squirrel dance

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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Woman Throws Cat in Trash

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

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 the true-life tale of the raccoons on my front porch. Toto on her heating padIn that post, I mentioned that my 16-year-old cat Toto has been relegated from mostly indoors to mostly outdoors. Many folks are justifiably concerned that this may be causing her distress. Let me reassure you that Toto is fine.

All of our cats have always been indoor-outdoor. We currently have four cats, and the three boys spend most of their days outside, coming inside only to sleep in the laundry baskets or at the foot of the bed. Toto used to spend a lot of her time outdoors when we lived in a small town. But since we moved to this house in 2004, she’s been mainly an indoor cat. (I’m not sure what made her switch; I think maybe she was nervous after moving, and then never adjusted to outside here.)

This summer, however, Toto spent much more of her time outdoors. I brought her out one day in June, and it’s sort of like she said, “Huh. Outdoors. That’s right, I like it out here. I wonder why I forgot about it?” She’d ask to be let outside so that she could lounge on a lawn chair almost every day. (The boys go in and out a window at will, but Toto can’t make that jump.)

When Toto’s urination issues became difficult for her human companions to bear, I decided to give the “mostly outside” thing a try. Yes, we did try other things first. We didn’t use a branded “piddle pad”, but I build an elaborate layered system on the floor around the litterboxes. And note that plural “litterboxes”. We have three litterboxes, each a different type. Toto now refuses to use the covered boxes, opting only for the uncovered box that she can get in and out of easily. Unfortunately, it’s still not big enough for her because she cannot squat, so she just pees out the back end. She doesn’t like it, I don’t like it, and my wife doesn’t like it.

Toto has taken the move outside without complaint — mostly. We did our best to make things comfortable for her. She has ample water (there’s a dish on the porch and a dish on the sidewalk). She has her heating pad. (Toto has had — and loved — a heating pad for three or four years now. It’s coated in black fur.) And she’s right next to a window that lets her see me working.

Plus, Toto’s not banished from inside. She’s just banished from upstairs where the bedrooms and litterboxes live. Many times each day, I let Toto in and out. (She is always shut out for bedtime and when there’s nobody home.) Unless she’s “in a state”, she doesn’t complain. (And cat owners will know what I mean by “in a state” — when a cat’s that way, they complain about everything!) In fact, she seems to prefer outside. Yes, she asks to be let in, but she asks to be let out just as often. And she sleeps on her chair contentedly for hours at a time.

To me, the best part of the whole deal is that Toto has adapted to using the outside world as her litterbox. She was reluctant at first, but now when she’s inside and needs to go, she asks to be let out, dashes down the steps, and goes to do her duty.

The only bit of woe in the system still has to do with mornings. Toto is used to being able to have a snack whenever she wants one, which generally includes when she wakes up. But since I took her food off the porch (to protect against the coons), she can’t have a snack first thing in the morning, so she wails until I let her in to get her food in the kitchen. This is unfortunate, but I don’t know a better solution.

In summary: I appreciate everyone’s concern for Toto, but I want to set your minds at ease. I love this cat, and don’t want her to be miserable. She’s not. She actually seems to be happier than she has been in a long time. And if Toto’s happy, we’re all happy!

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Do Lions and Tigers Like Catnip?

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 been fascinated by the author’s continued reference to dogs as being “baby wolves” who have had their development stunted. There’s a reason, she says, that dogs and wolves seem so similar. That’s because they are similar.

Well, here’s a question I’ve always had: Do lions and tigers like catnip? While browsing YouTube the other day, I found an answer:

The folks at Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit in Florida, decided to test whether their guests liked catnip as much as a household cat. They filled bags full of the stuff and threw them in with the animals. As you can see from the video, lions and tigers do like catnip.

That cheetah is so damn cute!

(For the record, I wish I could figure out how to keep a catnip plant alive. We plant one or two every spring, and by the end of summer our cats have mauled them to death.)

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The Raccoons on My Porch

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 of the box.

I spent the summer working with my vet to find things to help Toto, but nothing works. Since we can’t stand the smell of cat urine in the house, two weeks ago I took drastic measures. I banished Toto outside. (She gets to come in while I work, but I put her out for 80% of the day and night.)

Because Toto now lives outside, she eats and drinks outside. I’ve set up a heating pad on the porch, and given her own food and water area nearby. She seems perfectly content with this arrangement except when:

  • She’s out of food, or
  • She wants to be petted.

Strangely enough, she’s been out of food a lot lately. “I think another cat is eating Toto’s food,” I told Kris when I first noticed how quickly she was going through her bowl.

“Actually,” I said a couple of days later, “maybe it’s a dog. Whoever is eating Toto’s food keeps knocking the bowl over.”

But a few days after that, I realized that the food thief probably wasn’t even a dog. Whatever the critter was, it was messy. Every morning, Toto’s water dish was filled with mud. The food bowl was tipped over and the porch scattered with mud and debris.

“I’ll bet it’s a coon,” I told Kris. Though we live in a residential neighborhood not far from Portland, we’ve seen plenty of raccoons in the six years since we moved in.

Today I got to see the cat-food thievery first-hand. Turns out it’s not a raccoon — it’s a family of four. I was lucky enough to have my camera handy as they performed their daring raid:

My favorite part of this video is how Toto simply sits on her heating pad and watches the raccoons filch her food. She isn’t bothered at all. (After I stopped filming, one of the raccoons stepped on her, which caused her to hiss and swat, but the coon didn’t care.)

Now I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do. I’m well aware that feeding raccoons can cause woe. Next time, for example, the raccoon might swat Toto back. Or they could become aggressive with our three other cats.

I know that I want to feed Toto outside, but I have to find a way to do that without feeding the wildlife.

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Turtle and Tortoise Intelligence

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 even more!

Hey, buddy, I’ve been there…

The most recent addition to my own house is a little green guy named Nicholi (my impetus for this post). As he squirmed and hissed around in his owner’s hand when I met him, it got me thinking:

  • One, I have no idea how you’re supposed to “meet” a turtle. Clearly whatever the proper greeting is, this wasn’t it.
  • Two, how intelligent are turtles? My roommate explained that Nicholi (who is now one) should live for another 79 years. That’s a long time to spend in a plastic tub with occasional jaunts out to the backyard. It kind of made me sad.

I decided to do a little digging and found this New York Times “Ask Science” piece about turtle intelligence. Basically, there isn’t definitive scientific research to suggest they’re smart, and one doctor actually calls them dumb. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that turtles and tortoises are as smart as those wise old faces would have you believe! Of course, anecdotal evidence isn’t exactly science.

There are several cute stories in the NYT article. There’s also one not-so-cute story, but it relates to my situation. A 70-pound soft shelled turtle named Pigface had lived at the National Zoo for more than 40 years. Then, one day he began mutilating himself. Researchers wondered if the poor guy was bored out of his mind and began adding toys to his tank. Slowly he learned to play with the toys; the more puppy-like he became in learning to play, the less he mutilated himself. No word, however, on whether he might be intelligent enough to be shamed by the indignity of such a cruel name as Pigface…

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Two-Legged Kittens

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 farm cat from Kansas who was born without her two front legs. This doesn’t prevent her from getting around, though. She hops around like a kangaroo, though apparently she prefers carpet to linoleum.

But Grace isn’t the only two-legged kitten walking around the world. In Denver, Lola was born without the use of her hind legs. She’s learned to walk on her front paws:

And here’s a very vocal kitten from Japan (?) who apparently had its two hind legs amputated:

The Japanese kitten actually manages to balance itself without walking in a handstand. (Or “pawstand”, if you will.)

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How Otter Pups Learn to Swim

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 one mother teaches her unenthusiastic youngster some otter essentials:

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