Mushrooms May Talk to Each Other Using Their Own Fungal Language

Their language patterns have up to 50 words.

Yellow colored caterpillar fungi being analyzed
Caterpillar fungi wired for sound and being analyzed.

Andrew Adamatzky

You may not think mushrooms can talk but one scientist claims they communicate with each other, using up to 50 words. The study, titled "Language of fungi derived from their electrical spiking activity," by Andrew Adamatzky, who runs the appropriately named Unconventional Computing Laboratory of the University of the West of England, has everybody talking. Some are not taking his research seriously—comedian Jimmy Fallon accused him of "talking shiitake"—but here at Treehugger, we have always been open to conversations with slime mold and trees via the Wood Wide Web.

Adamatzky, who previously published research about building a fungal computer and dressing up in living wearables made from slime mold and fungi, inserted electrodes into four different kinds of fungi: ghost fungi (Omphalotus nidiformis), Enoki fungi (Flammulina velutipes), split gill fungi (Schizophyllum commune), and caterpillar fungi (Cordyceps militaris). He observed spikes of electrical activity, which is common in all creatures. However, the fungi displayed changing patterns of activity that could be interpreted as communication:

"We observed bursts of spiking in the trains of the spike similar to that observed in the central nervous system. While the similarity could be just phenomenological, this indicates a possibility that mycelium networks transform information via interaction of spikes and trains of spikes in manner homologous to neurons. First evidence has been obtained that indeed fungi respond to mechanical, chemical and optical stimulation by changing pattern of its electrically activity and, in many cases, modifying characteristics of their spike trains."

In other words, they appear to be responding to what is happening to them and then talking about it.

Much depends on one's definition of "language." Adamatzky discusses communication among creatures without a nervous system through hormones, pheromones, and chemicals. This is not language as humans think of it, but as Melissa Breyer, Treehugger's editorial director, has written many times: Trees are talking and we should take what they are saying seriously.

Adamatzky notes, "A modified conception of language of plants is considered to be a pathway towards 'the de-objectification of plants and the recognition of their subjectivity and inherent worth and dignity.'"

So, the question is: Are the patterns of long and short electrical spikes actually language? Listening to mushrooms takes patience. The fast-talking spikes take 2.6 minutes and the more languorous ones are 14 minutes long. The Ents in Fangorn Forest are chatterboxes by comparison. When all the spikes were plotted out, Adamatzky compared the patterns of spacing and gaps to those of the English language. He studied the patterns in the spike trains and concluded they are definitely having words among themselves.

The study states, "We recorded extracellular electrical activity of four species of fungi. We found evidences of the spike trains propagating along the mycelium network. We speculated that fungal electrical activity is a manifestation of the information communicated between distant parts of the fungal colonies."

Looking at the repeating patterns, he found that the "size of fungal lexicon can be up to 50 words; however, the core lexicon of most frequently used words does not exceed 15–20 words."

The different species of fungi spoke different languages with varying degrees of complexity, and Adamatzky admits he doesn't understand what they are saying. "That said, we should not expect quick results: we are yet to decipher language of cats and dogs despite living with them for centuries, and research into electrical communication of fungi is in its pure infant stage," writes Adamatzky in the study.

Indeed. In another paper, "Fungal States of Minds," released at the same time but not yet peer-reviewed, Adamatzky and his team of researchers use the same data and go further than asking whether fungi communicate, but whether they actually think.

"Fungal organisms can perceive the outer world in a way similar to what animals sense. Does that mean that they have full awareness of their environment and themselves? Is a fungus a conscious entity? In laboratory experiments we found that fungi produce patterns of electrical activity, similar to neurons. There are low and high frequency oscillations and convoys of spike trains. The neural-like electrical activity is yet another manifestation of the fungal intelligence."

At times when reading this paper, it seems Adamatzky has been eating too many of certain varieties of his subjects, especially when he delves into what it must be like to be immortal, as certain fungi apparently are, with an intelligence possibly different and greater than our own.

"An immortal, or even extremely old consciousness, would be able to develop perhaps an intelligence out of reach for us, pursuing objectives that might seem unreasonable, for our limited perception. Perception of space and time, causality, are all aspects that we consider our unquestionable bottom line. But given the peculiarity of fungi morphology and degree of connection, we may imagine how radically different computational schemes are embedded into a fungal consciousness."

This all sounds a bit much, but admittedly, Breyer has been saying much the same thing as a champignon of trees, writing:

"They have no need to boast about how great they are, they just live their stoic lives and do their work. But meanwhile, unbeknownst to most of us, the secret lives of trees are wildly deep and complex. They can count and care for each other, they recognize their offspring, they form bonds like old couples, they are aware of their neighbors and give them room, they form friendships and remember their experiences."

Rereading Breyer, I am becoming queasy about my promotion of mass timber construction. Reading Adamatzky, I am wondering if mushrooms are off the menu. Both force us to reconsider our place in the world.

View Article Sources
  1. Bendix, Trish. "Jimmy Fallon Trips Out Over Mushrooms Talking to Each Other." New York Times.

  2. Adamatzky, Adam. "Language of fungi derived from their electrical spiking activity." Royal Society of Open Science, vol. 9, no. 4, April 2022. doi:10.1098/rsos.211926

  3. Adamatzky, Adam, et al. "Fungal States of Mind." 3 April 2022. doi:10.1101/2022.04.03.486900