Saturday, June 13, 2009

What horror movie are we today?

Today, we're The Ruins.

The latest issue of Science News magazine kicks off a new story about plant intelligence with some imagery right out of a horror flick:

In a somewhat different world, Consuelo M. De Moraes would be revolutionizing vampire fiction.

Her lab at Penn State University studies predators that entangle prey in a tight embrace, pierce victims’ tissue and suck out nourishment. In the last few years, De Moraes and her colleagues have found that the predators even hunt down prey by scent.

Creepy as her predator, Cuscuta pentagona, is, it is also, frankly, a plant. Better known as five-angled dodder, its orange tentacles bypass the porcelain throats of young women in favor of the slim stems of young tomato plants. De Moraes and other researchers are showing that plants behave and misbehave as dramatically as animals. But there’s still not much hope for a feature-length dodder movie.

“I think most people regard plants as being pretty unresponsive and stuck in one place,” laments ecologist Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis. “Now, animals, they’re interestingbecause they can change and act in response to their environment.”

It’s a dichotomy Karban doesn’t accept for one second. When he and an animal behaviorist recently supervised a grad student, he remembers, “I would constantly want to say, ‘Oh yeah! Yeah! Plants do that too!’” Recent findings on plant capacities, he declares in a 2008 paper in Ecology Letters, reveal “high levels of sophistication previously thought to be within the sole domain of animal behavior.”

Even plants less vampirish than Cuscuta vines forage strategically for their food, and there’s evidence that plants fight each other over resources. In a broad sense of the word, plants communicate — some essentially scream for help. Also, a plant can respond to stimuli depending on its history of previous experiences, a tendency Karban is willing to call a sign of memory.

1 comment:

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