Can Plants Possess The Ability To Make Risky Decisions?

PlantsThe lowly pea doesn’t really much of a reputation. Sure it is known as a crisp and sweet vegetable, used in stews, stir fry, and even soup.  It is nutritious and tasty but apparently it is also very smart.

Ok, peas do not have brains, but many plants exhibit behaviors quite similar to human intelligence. Plants like peas actually take certain risks, depending on the nutrient levels of the environment. Indeed, scientists conducted a study involving the placement of plants in different environments—with varying nutrient levels—to learn that plants will make calculated risks in order to guarantee it secures the maximum nutrients available.

“To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of an adaptive response to risk in an organism without a nervous system,” explains study author Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University.

The lead study author goes on to say, “Complex and interesting behaviors can be theoretically predicted as biological adaptations, and executed by organisms, on the basis of processes evolved to exploit natural opportunities efficiently.”
Obviously, the scientists were, generally, surprised by these results. Plants do not have a brain so, aside from certain instinctive, adaptive habits (like turning towards the sun) it seems impossible that they should be able to make such decisions.

Accordingly, fellow researcher Efrat Dener of Ben-Gurion University notes, “I used to look at plants as passive receivers of circumstances. This line of experiments illustrates how wrong that view is: living organisms are designed by natural selection to exploit their opportunities, and this often implies a great deal of flexibility.”

Similarly, University of Utah biologist Leslie Sieburth commented (in 2005), “If intelligence is the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge, then, absolutely, plants are intelligent.”

Now, some of these biologists will argue that such decision-making skills do not necessarily characterize plants as “intelligent” because that would also mean that they must have a certain level of self-awareness. However, study in “plant intelligence” is a fast-growing field of research and scientists are learning that human and animal decision making studies can, in fact, be transferable to plants; and that, alone, is fascinating enough.  Obviously, then, this is only the beginning of this fascinating new area of study.

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