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Plant behaviour finally recognised as a form of intelligence

Plants make human life on Earth possible, and now thanks to plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso we also know they are intelligent beings.

Italian plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso has been working tirelessly to teach the world that plants are intelligent creatures that are able to communicate with each other in order to find nutrients, propagate their species and defend themselves against predators. Naturalist Charles Darwin introduced this notion in the late 1800s, although it was not taken seriously until Mancuso made his mark. The Roots of Plant Intelligence is the plant neurobiologist’s first TED Talk, which has allowed thousands of viewers all over the world to learn a fascinating new truth about some of the most ancient forms of life on our planet.

How plant intelligence works

Unlike creatures of the animal world who rely on a brain, plants use their numerous roots, which are often in the millions, to accomplish many tasks. Mancuso compares this mechanism to the Internet: each root tip, or apex, works in a network with all the others, and even when it loses 90% or more of its root system a plant is able to survive and continue communicating. This is a clear advantage over animals, who would quickly perish should they lose the functions of their one brain. Plants have more sophisticated senses compared to animals, as every root tip is able to detect and monitor at least fifteen different chemical and physical parameters at the same time. The small region called “transition zone” is where the highest consumption of oxygen occurs in the plant and where most signals are found. These, like neurons in the human brain, are used to exchange information.

Communication and movement in plants

Plants are amazing communicators. They interact with each other and even distinguish kin from non-kin. As their movements are limited, they need animals as carriers to accomplish some tasks: during pollination insects, birds, reptiles and bats are attracted by the chemical vapours plants produce. Animals receive their sweet and energising nectar, in exchange for transporting the pollen that guarantees the propagation of countless plant species.

 

Mancuso, Director of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology (LINV) near Florence, Italy, explains that plants’ behaviour has been largely ignored because these, in their stillness, fail to attract our interest in the same way animals do.

 

trees intelligent plants
Tree life at Mount Rainier National Park, USA © Rocco Passafaro

The importance of plants

In Stefano Mancuso‘s words, “we depend on plants, thus plant conservation is necessary for man conservation”. In fact, he believes that they should be treated with more respect and have rights the same way humans and animals do.

 

Plants, many of them still unknown to us, make up more than 99% of the Earth’s biomass. Humans and animals make up only one percent. Nonetheless, human activities such as deforestation, pollution and climate change cause many plant species to disappear on a daily basis. Yet plants make life on our planet possible by supplying the oxygen we need to breathe and helping produce precious rain, and if they were to become extinct, ours would become a lifeless, barren planet.

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