The Secret Life of Plants is a quite possibly one of the most engrossing books pertaining to biology and symbiotic relationships between plants and humans. The book, written by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, provides evidence that shows plants can sense the emotions of all living things—whether it’s other plants, fish, animals or humans. Highlighting the famed experiments conducted by Cleve Backster, the book explains that a lie detector and related apparatus was affixed to a plant. The detector measured the plant’s responses to positive emotions, negative emotions, intent-to-harm, and even pain that was inflicted to another organism. To accompany the book, a soundtrack was produced by Stevie Wonder, as well as full-documentary, which you can watch below.
Sorting through 20 years of orangutan behavior observed in Indonesia, two researchers have discovered in 18 occasions what they interpret as orangutans acting out a request or other communication in elaborated gestures of pantomime, beyond their demonstrated miming used to communicate. The observations may offer insight into what orangutans understand about the minds of others and also shed light on the ancient gestural roots of human language.
On four of the occasions, one orangutan mimed for another, and 14 instances an orangutan mimed to a human, according to a paper released online the week of August 9 in Biology Letters.
One example of miming a need to a human occurred in a free-living forest facility on Borneo, where orangutans sometimes get dirt scrubbed off their faces by a person with a leaf. According to study coauthor and cognitive ecologist Anne Russon of York University in Toronto, a young male called Cecep plopped down in front of her and handed her a leaf.
“I played dumb,” she remembers. “He waited a respectable few seconds, then — all the while looking me in the eye — he took back the leaf, rubbed it on his own forehead….” Again he handed it to her. “Then I did as I was told,” she says, and wiped away the dirt.
Orangutan-to-human pantomimes may be the easiest to observe, Russon says, but these occasions may also present special challenges to communication, and possibly to patience. “The orangutans get a look on their faces like ‘Are you stupid?’” she says.
In another occasion caught on video (see below), Russon says a young female orangutan called Siti swiftly punched though one of a coconut’s three eyelike depressions and broke off a leaf stem to fish out the sweet innards. When Siti had exhausted what she could reach through that opening, she took her coconut to one of the men at the rehabilitation forest who did whack open coconuts with his big parang knife, but he handed the nut back to Siti.
She “briefly and weakly poked into the coconut opening” and then handed it back to the human. When the man again did nothing, Siti took her leaf stem and made chopping-style slashes against the coconut, in what looked to Russon like mimicry of a person using a parang.
One of the themes in 13 of Russon’s examples is the mimer’s elaboration of a breakdown in communications. This “suggests they understand something about what their partner didn’t understand,” she says.
Studying mime offers a way to look at long-standing issues of nonhuman species’ theories of mind. Pantomime gestures also present a way to look at the deep evolutionary origins of human language, Russon says. Recent thinking has raised the possibility that language sprouted from gestural communication.
Doug Levey, a biologist at the University of Florida, found that birds can easily pick out a threatening person from a crowd.
According to a paper in the journal PNAS, Levey sent students, aka “intruders”, to perturb nests of mockingbirds. An ‘intrusion’ consisted of standing by an egg-filled nest for 15 seconds, then touching it for an additional 15 seconds. This aggressive loitering, which was repeated over four days, elicited an increasingly intense response. The mockingbirds ignored the approach of other, non-threatening students, but every time the ‘intruder’ student swung by, the birds quickly and sneakily left the nest and eventually dive-bombed the ‘intruder.’ “The first time a male mockingbird drew blood on the back of my neck, I was shocked,” says intruder Monique Hiersoux.
Mockingbirds’ strong awareness of their surroundings makes them well suited for living so close to humans, Levey concludes. We might be walking along on campus and see a mockingbird perched on a branch and think, “Oh, that bird is minding its own business,” he says, “but what we don’t realize is that we are its business.”
Plants in a forest respond to stress by producing significant amounts of a chemical form of aspirin, scientists have discovered. The finding, by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), opens up new avenues of research into the behavior of plants and their impacts on air quality, and it also has the potential to give farmers an early warning signal about crops that are failing.
“Unlike humans, who are advised to take aspirin as a fever suppressant, plants have the ability to produce their own mix of aspirin-like chemicals, triggering the formation of proteins that boost their biochemical defenses and reduce injury,” says NCAR scientist Thomas Karl, who led the study. “Our measurements show that significant amounts of the chemical can be detected in the atmosphere as plants respond to drought, unseasonable temperatures, or other stresses.”
For years, scientists have known that plants in a laboratory may produce methyl salicylate, which is a chemical form of acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin. But researchers had never before detected methyl salicylate in an ecosystem or verified that plants emit the chemical in significant quantities into the atmosphere.
Researchers had not previously thought to look for methyl salicylate in a forest, and the NCAR team found the chemical by accident. They set up specialized instruments last year in a walnut grove near Davis, California, to monitor plant emissions of certain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These hydrocarbon compounds are important because they can combine with industrial emissions to affect pollution, and they can also influence local climate.
When the NCAR scientists reviewed their measurements, they found to their surprise that the emissions of VOCs included methyl salicylate. Karl and his colleagues speculate that the methyl salicylate has two functions. One of these is to stimulate plants to begin a process known as systemic acquired resistance, which is analogous to an immune response in an animal. This helps a plant to both resist and recover from disease.
The discovery raises the possibility that farmers, forest managers, and others may eventually be able to start monitoring plants for early signs of a disease, an insect infestation, or other types of stress. At present, they often do not know if an ecosystem is unhealthy until there are visible indicators, such as dead leaves.
The discovery also can help scientists resolve a central mystery about VOCs. For years, atmospheric chemists have speculated that there are more VOCs in the atmosphere than they have been able to find. Now it appears that some fraction of the missing VOCs may be methyl salicylate and other plant hormones. This finding can help scientists better track the impact of VOCs on the behavior of clouds and the development of ground-level ozone, an important pollutant.
In a conversation with Sputnik Observatory, artist Hiro Yamagata reveals how the frequency in which trees talk to each other is a calming energy:
Most of the people we test, we did testing over in Japan, most of the people in the deep forest, people get healing or calm or get energy because the tree to tree they release frequencies. They talk to each other. They communicate with each other. One piece I made for sensory system of the frequency captured and transferred through this sensory system to canvas walls. So you can see the visual, you cannot see the visual, but visualize a frequency.
There’s no doubt that different species communicate with each other. Plants are interacting via chemicals like isoprenes and other molecules, and their root systems are exchanging chemicals with various fungi in elaborate networking relationships inside the soil. If you begin to think of everything as networking, then everything is communication. The belief that plants can talk to us, by sensing and responding to human thought, which is basically saying that plants are conscious and telepathic, is another matter. But according to National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, different social belief systems illicit alternative perceptions, and when living with Australian Aborigines they told him, “plants talk to us,” in which he explained that although it may sound like nonsense to our Descartian rationale mind because it doesn’t fit into our paradigm, when “you think about it, well, maybe it’s true.” Another person who has considered the possibility is polygraph expert Cleve Backster who has attached a plant to a lie-detector, burnt its leaves and watched the needle go ballistic, and more importantly, in experiments where a person merely thought about injuring the plant, Backster’s polygraph indicated the same frantic spikes. Although the argument against plant-human communication is based on the fact that plants don’t have complex nervous systems and therefore are incapable of feelings, recent studies indicate that plants do use neuronal-like networks for biocommunication. The signal transmission between living organisms could also simply be the ability to have empathetic relationships. This form of communication is evident by people such as Jane Goodall whose kinship led her to catalogue her study-primates with names such as Gigi, Flo and Frodo, and it’s what drove J. Butterfly Hill to climb 180 feet up an ancient redwood she named Luna to fight for the rights of trees. The Swiss Government has issued a Bill of Rights for Plants; psychoanalyst John Lilly believed he could speak with dolphins; and biologist Rupert Sheldrake has written a book titled, “Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home.” Living in a society that teaches it’s parrots to speak leads to the thought that if we could “talk with the animals—oh, what a lovely place the world would be.”