A recent experiment has shown that plants may be better at taking tough decisions than many humans are. It is the first time researchers spot adaptive responses to environmental stimuli outside the animal kingdom.
Scientists were especially surprised by the plants’ risk assessment abilities. They learned that plants know when to expand their roots more depending on the amount of nutrients in soil.
In the study, a group of researchers at Oxford University grew several pea plants under controlled laboratory conditions. Unlike their free sisters, the laboratory plants had their roots split between two pots. Each pot had different types of soils, so plants had to decide which soil to prioritise.
After several weeks, the research team found that plants took some wise decisions on how to grow. For instance, they grew more roots in nutrient-rich pots even though their other half of the roots were placed in a pot depleted of nutrients.
Next, researchers wanted to learn how good the plants’ decision skills were in uncertain conditions. They grew plants in two pots containing the same amount of nutrients with the sole difference that nutrient levels in one pot varied over time while nutrients in the other pot remained unchanged.
Just like humans and animals would, plants were risk averse when nutrient levels were high and were risk prone when nutrients levels were below their needs to thrive.
For instance, a human would take his chances and risk losing $800 that are guaranteed to a game with 50-50% chances of winning $1000 if he needed those $1,000 to take a plane back home from a remote and hostile location.
Pea plants, just like humans would, developed more roots in the pot with variable levels of nutrients when nutrients were scarce and grew more roots in the pot with constant levels of nutrients when nutrients allowed them to thrive.
Professor Alex Kacelnik, lead author of the study noted that it is the first time a team detects risk assessment skills in organisms that lack a nervous system. Kacelnik dismissed the assumption that plants are intelligent, but they do possess biological adaptations that help them exploit opportunities efficiently.
Efrat Dener of Ben Gurion University acknowledged that prior to the experiment he had perceived plants as passive receivers rather than dynamic decision makers. Gurion was startled by the plants’ natural flexibility when taking risks.
A study detailing the findings was published this week in the journal Biology.
Image Source: Flickr
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