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Creation 41(1):56, January 2019

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Plants are ‘listening’!



A news release from the University of Western Australia announced that “plants have far more complex and developed senses than we thought” with the ability to detect and respond to sounds.1 In particular, fascinating research has shown that seedling roots can ‘hear’ the sound of gurgling water.

Researchers grew pea seedlings in pots shaped like an upside-down Y, such that roots had a two-way ‘choice’.2 E.g. they grew towards wet soil rather than dry soil, or aimed for a tray of water instead of the dry soil. Remarkably, when one of the choices was a sealed pipe through which water flowed, seedling roots grew towards it rather than dry soil.

“They just knew the water was there, even if the only thing to detect was the sound of it flowing inside the pipe,” explained lead researcher Monica Gagliano.3 And in the instance of wet soil being offered as an alternative, the plant roots grew towards it rather than the gurgling pipe, prompting the researchers to surmise that plants use sound waves to detect water at a distance, but home in on actual moisture when it is nearer.

Dr Gagliano explained the research “indicates that the invasion of sewer pipes by tree roots may be based on the plants ‘hearing’ water and shows that their perception of their surroundings is much greater and far more complex than we previously thought.”1

Actually, Gagliano herself has been on the trail of plant sensory capability for some time, although she is also a marine biologist and a musician. She had earlier discovered that corn roots distinctly bend towards the source of continuous sound (especially at frequencies of 200–300 Hz).4 Other researchers, too, have been spurred on to investigate “the plant’s acoustical environment and what it might be listening for”5 (e.g. chomping caterpillars,5 and even other plants6).

Where did such impressive ‘hearing’ ability come from? According to Dr Gagliano and her co-workers, it is apparently attributable to evolution, as they have written for example that “Plants vibrate at the rhythm of an evolutionary common sense.”4 But the staggering complexity of plants, with these incredible sensory capacities only now being uncovered by scientists after years of painstaking research, speaks powerfully of having been designed—on Day 3 of Creation Week (Genesis 1:11–13). The Bible identifies this Designer as our Creator, Lord, and Saviour, Jesus (Colossians 1:16).

References and notes

  1. Study reveals plants ‘listen’ to find sources of water, news.uwa.edu.au, 11 April 2017. Return to text.
  2. Gagliano, M., and 3 others, Tuned in: plant roots use sound to locate water, Oecologia 184(1):151–160, 2017 | doi:10.1007/s00442-017-3862-z. Return to text.
  3. Zaraska, M., Can plants hear? Scientific American 317(1):20, July 2017 | doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0717-20. Return to text.
  4. Gagliano, M., Mancuso, S., and Robert, D., Towards understanding plant bioacoustics, Trends Plant Sci. 17:323–325, 2012. Return to text.
  5. Meissen, R., Hearing danger: predator vibrations trigger plant chemical defenses, decodingscience.missouri.edu, 1 July 2014. Return to text.
  6. Gagliano, M., and 4 others, Out of sight but not out of mind: Alternative means of communication in plants. PLoS ONE 7(5):e37382, 2012 | doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0037382. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Ewan K.
I have no doubt that in the future they will conclude that plants have feelings and feel pain. People who lived today will be viewed as cruel and barbaric for cutting grass and hedges.

People who bemoan slavery or sexism in the Bible have no understanding of History. You cannot judge the past by the standards of the present.

Sorry for upsetting the snowflakes.
Don Batten
Some 'New Age' types have already concluded this. However, to have feelings and be conscious of pain requires a complex brain, and plants don't have that.
LinhSan G.
Or just God designed and put in the seed DNA that the seed can "feel" the moisture comes from where the water source is instead of "hearing" the sound of the water running like in this article. It does not really matter, to the believers, whether trees can hear or not because believers know in their heart that God, the Creator, the Ultimate Designer made everything good. But maybe that is why Tolkien's Elves can talk to trees and even teach them to speak!!!
Don Batten
The researchers made efforts to show that it was the sound of the moving water that was sensed by the plants.
Erielle W.
Job 14:9 “Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.”
Funny how God always knows best and once again science is just trying to catch-up.
Job 14:9 KJV
Don Batten
Interesting verse. However, a scent requires some molecules to be sensed. With this research, the plant did not even have a scent because the water was sealed in a pipe.
John H.
I was very interested to see this article. In 1973, I read a controversial book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird entitled The Secret Life of Plants, Harper & Row, New York NY and wondered if scientists would eventually substantiate some of their claims. I have my answer.
Eddy L.
I had the roots of a Eucalyptus tree go underground for about 15m where it wound itself around my main water pipe feeding a tank and through squashing it, caused the pipe to split open.
It is also said amongst Game rangers that the Acacia Karoo trees send messages to each other when giraffe are chewing them. They say that the tree starts becoming bitter and so too the trees in the immediate vicinity, so that the animals move off instead of finishing off the tree.
Chris W.
Hmm, I assume the researchers 100% took out of the equation the possibility that evaporation from the gurgling water could not have ventured towards the vicinity of the plant - just one or two molecules of water might be enough to stimulate root growth towards the source. You know how clever our Creator is!
Don Batten
The water was flowing in a pipe, so there would be no evaporation for the plant to sense.
Philip R.
Very interesting article, our Creator be praised. Trees growing next to a river or creek also "know" enough to send their roots away from the water so that they can anchor themselves and prevent being swept away by the rushing water.
John C.
But Dear David G, AU,
Isn’t it even more amazing that this would be considered a ‘new’ ability? The sheer arrogance of ‘we haven’t observed it before, so it’s new,’ set my stomach fluttering. Who says it’s new? Ecclesiastes sure doesn’t. ‘Nothing new under the sun,’ after all.
David G.
It is remarkable that no one sees through the reflexive attribution of refined capabilities to 'evolution'; a description of a process that itself has no ontology. Someone should ask her to discuss the microbiological pathways by which a highly functional information system changes in just the right way to bring about a new capability.

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