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Do Plants Exhibit Behavior?

Updated on June 20, 2014

Do Plants Exhibit Behavior?


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “Behavior is the image in which everyone shows their image.” However, do plants behave? I mean, we see them everyday, they show their image, but do plants really behave? Like animals? Plants eat, grow, learn, exhibit self-defense, avoid mating with family, and nurture their young, just as animals do the same. How? The inability for them to maneuver and the lack of a nervous system does not limit their ability to behave. Over the course of many studies plants have been observed to behave using under ground systems of fungal networks, using chemical signals to protect themselves from predators, and even growing faster underground instantly at the detection of nutrient rich patches of soil.

So what exactly do plants do to behave and how do they do it? First of all, the question of how these elegant beauties behave without a nervous system and without movement is still being researched. But, known clues and observations have proved that plants eat, grow, learn, exhibit self-defense, avoid mating with family, and nurture their young. Plants eat by gaining nutrients underground and gaining light energy from the sun to photosynthesize, just as animals consume nutrients from plants or other prey. Plants grow by using those nutrients to fuel reactions in their body and propel themselves away from the far-reaching ground in an attempt to rise higher than their peers. Animals do the same, as they metabolize and use that energy to fuel their body’s needs. Plants learn through perceiving the world through its senses and on a cellular level, and they respond based on various circumstances. Same goes for animals, as they first learn what situation they are in before performing the right response.

Plants exhibit self-defense by releasing chemical signals or adapting differently to dire or threatening situations. For example, tobacco plants use chemical warfare to protect themselves from even the most excruciating circumstances. For example, if a pollinator is causing damage to the tobacco plant by landing its eggs on the plant, and the babies hatch and start destroying the tobacco plant, the plant learns to switch pollinators. This changes the pollinator and thus effectively resolves the problem. On a minor scale, if herbivores are trying devour this addictive herb, it sends out chemical signals to develop a spit like substance on its outer covering to keep predators far from reach. Animals almost behave in the same exact way. They weigh their gains and losses and defend themselves. If it’s just a precaution they do simple things like hiding. However, if it’s a threatening situation (i.e. a predator is destroying it’s habitat and hunting it down) the animal will probably run away as soon as possible, or die trying.

Finally, plants also nurture their young and avoid mating with their own relatives. Plants use underground fungal networks to help spread nutrients that it gains to its young and feeble successors. For example, in a study where a tree was injected with a carbon-14 subordinate and days later, through a complicated measuring utensil it was found that the carbon-14 subordinate had been transferred from the tree to a younger and growing tree. Animals nurture their young as well. For example, the dam of a pack of puppies nurtures its young till about the age of eight weeks, and only after this point are the puppies allowed to be sold or old enough to go far distances away from the dam without being in danger. Plants also develop certain characteristics that don’t allow them to mate with their own relatives, just like animals don’t, or else their young will develop a lot of problems.

Although people have always had a perception that plants don’t behave, through modern studies, it has been found that they do. To make the learning process easier, many ways that a plant behaves are analogous to those of animals. The one catch is that plants do this without movement or a nervous system. The question how remains unanswered and search for the answer is ongoing.


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