First, some self-disclosure: I’m a vegetarian. I have been for over a decade. Ever since a strange man stepped out of the shadows in downtown Berkley and demanded that I give him $1.75 or he’d smash the hell out of a hamster he’d acquired through (I suspect) nefarious means. I don’t know how he decided upon the price — most hamsters, even when adopted from a rescue will run you at least $20 in fees — but after I saw her little face, I paid the guy what he wanted, took the hamster home, named her Bunny, and then never ate meat again. Why? Couldn’t tell you. But that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is that for the past however many years (I just counted, it’s 14) I’ve been laughing at all those jokes about how “plants could be hurting, too” and feeling good about myself for being chill with animals.
Well, at least I was feeling good until this morning. Because this morning I read a new study that informed me — bastion of goodwill and kindness — that plants really do have feelings. In fact, they don’t just have feelings, but they actually know when they’re being eaten. And… SURPRISE! they. do. not. like. it.
This stunning revelation comes from a new study out of The University of Missouri, where researchers, emboldened by previous research on how plants respond to sound, researchers at the university wanted to know how plants respond to an “ecologically relevant vibration.”
In the study, caterpillars were placed on Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard. Using a laser and a tiny piece of reflective material on the leaf of the plant, Cocroft was able to measure the movement of the leaf in response to the chewing caterpillar.
Cocroft and Appel then played back recordings of caterpillar feeding vibrations to one set of plants, but played back only silence to the other set of plants. When caterpillars later fed on both sets of plants, the researchers found that the plants previously exposed to feeding vibrations produced more mustard oils, a chemical that is unappealing to many caterpillars.
What this means, basically, is that the plants knew that danger lurks around every corner, that they don’t like being eaten (sorry), and that they’ll actually get angry when an insect (or a human) won’t let them live when all they’re trying to do is hang out on the vine.
Here’s a video that explains it all and includes some very cute sound bites of caterpillars chewing.
First of all, I didn’t even know caterpillars made chewing noises. Second of all, I feel really bad for the plants (not enough to stop eating them, though). The researchers will continue studying how plants respond to different sound stimuli and they’re really excited about the fact that we now have evidence that plants can and will protect themselves. As a vegetarian, I’m concerned that this will mean that I’m going to have to go full on fruitarian and wait for the plants to actually die before I eat them.
As a human, I’m concerned that all this “research” will somehow make the plants self-aware and trigger the kind of attack we were all warned about in The Happening. Well, at least M. Night Shyamalan will be happy.