From Helmholtz Centre for the Environment and the University of Gottingen, via the American Society of Naturalists:
Plants are able to make complex decisions too. This at least is the conclusion of scientists from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the University of Göttingen based on their investigations on the barberry (Berberis vulgaris), which is able to abort its own seeds to prevent parasite infestation. The results are the first ecological evidence of complex behavior in plants. They indicate that this species has a structural memory and is able to differentiate between inner and outer conditions as well as anticipate future risks, scientists write in the renowned journal The American Naturalist.
When analysing their samples, the scientists came across a surprising discovery: whether seeds of infested fruits are actually aborted depends on how many seeds there are in the berry. If the infested fruit contains two seeds, then in 75 percent of cases, the plants will abort the infested seeds, in order to save the second intact seed. If, however, the infested fruit only contains one seed, then the plant will abort the infested seed only in 5 percent of cases to protect the investment in the fruit coat. Using Monte-Carlo calculations, scientists were able to demonstrate this to be anticipative behavior whereby anticipated losses and present conditions are weighed up. The Oregon grape, closely related to the barberry, has been living in Europe for some 200 years, yet it has not developed any comparable defense strategy.
If this holds up: The plant does not think, but something in it thinks.
Adaptive and Selective Seed Abortion Reveals Complex Conditional Decision Making in Plants
Abstract: Behavior is traditionally attributed to animals only. Recently, evidence for plant behavior is accumulating, mostly from plant physiological studies. Here, we provide ecological evidence for complex plant behavior in the form of seed abortion decisions conditional on internal and external cues. We analyzed seed abortion patterns of barberry plants exposed to seed parasitism and different environmental conditions. Without abortion, parasite infestation of seeds can lead to loss of all seeds in a fruit. We statistically tested a series of null models with Monte Carlo simulations to establish selectivity and adaptiveness of the observed seed abortion patterns. Seed abortion was more frequent in parasitized fruits and fruits from dry habitats. Surprisingly, seed abortion occurred with significantly greater probability if there was a second intact seed in the fruit. This strategy provides a fitness benefit if abortion can prevent a sibling seed from coinfestation and if nonabortion of an infested but surviving single seed saves resources invested in the fruit coat. Ecological evidence for complex decision making in plants thus includes a structural memory (the second seed), simple reasoning (integration of inner and outer conditions), conditional behavior (abortion), and anticipation of future risks (seed predation).
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