Plants Are Capable of Complex Decision-Making

Are plants smarter than we think they are?. brewbooks/Flickr

Have you ever had the distinct feeling that your houseplants know more than they're letting on? Well, your intuition might not be far off.

Competition Leads to Decision-Making

We already know that plants are capable of learning and adapting to their environment, just like any organism. But a new study out of Tübingen University seems to suggest that plants can do more than just adapt. They can actually make decisions, and fairly complex decisions at that.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Plants might be rooted, but their environments can be intricate, and the contexts where they're situated can change. In fact, researchers discovered that competition and a dynamic environment are what really pushes plant decision-making to its limits.

For instance, when vying with competitors for limited sunlight, a plant is faced with having to choose among a number of options. It can attempt to outgrow its neighbors, thus gaining more access to light. It can also attempt to go into a low-light survival mode, if it doesn't deem an arms race to be worthwhile. The plant might also need to determine which way it should grow to best maximize its resources.

Shade-Tolerant Leaves vs Taller Plant

"In our study we wanted to learn if plants can choose between these responses and match them to the relative size and density of their opponents," said Michal Gruntman, one of the study's researchers, in a press release.

In the experiment, whenever plants were presented with tall competitors, they would go into shade-tolerance mode. Conversely, when plants were surrounded by small, dense vegetation, they would attempt to grow vertically. But there were also subtler decisions built into each of these scenarios, too. For instance, plants in shade-tolerance mode would make their leaves thinner and wider (to capture as much light as possible) relative to the level of their competition.

"Such an ability to choose between different responses according to their outcome could be particularly important in heterogeneous environments, where plants can grow by chance under neighbors with different size, age or density, and should therefore be able to choose their appropriate strategy," said Gruntman.

All of this essentially means that scientists are beginning to look more closely at how plants work through their decisions. Obviously plants don't have nervous systems, so more research will be needed to see exactly how these decision-making mechanisms operate within our flora friends.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.