Although it has been revealed in recent years that plants are capable of seeing, hearing and smelling, they are still usually thought of as silent. But now, for the first time, they have been recorded making airborne sounds when stressed, which researchers say could open up a new field of precision agriculture where farmers listen for water-starved crops.
Itzhak Khait and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University in Israel found that tomato and tobacco plants made sounds at frequencies humans cannot hear when stressed by a lack of water or when their stem is cut.
Microphones placed 10 centimetres from the plants picked up sounds in the ultrasonic range of 20 to 100 kilohertz, which the team says insects and some mammals would be capable of hearing and responding to from as far as 5 metres away. A moth may decide against laying eggs on a plant that sounds water-stressed, the researchers suggest. Plants could even hear that other plants are short of water and react accordingly, they speculate.
“These findings can alter the way we think about the plant kingdom, which has been considered to be almost silent until now,” they write in their study, which has not yet been published in a journal.
Previously, devices have been attached to plants to record the vibrations caused by air bubbles forming and exploding – a process known as cavitation – inside xylem tubes, which are used for water transport. But this new study is the first time that sounds from plants have been measured at a distance.
On average, drought-stressed tomato plants made 35 sounds an hour, while tobacco plants made 11. When plant stems were cut, tomato plants made an average of 25 sounds in the following hour, and tobacco plants 15. Unstressed plants produced fewer than one sound per hour, on average.
It is even possible to distinguish between the sounds to know what the stress is. The researchers trained a machine-learning model to discriminate between the plants’ sounds and the wind, rain and other noises of the greenhouse, correctly identifying in most cases whether the stress was caused by dryness or a cut, based on the sound’s intensity and frequency. Water-hungry tobacco appears to make louder sounds than cut tobacco, for example.
Although Khait and his colleagues only looked at tomato and tobacco plants, they believe other plants may make sounds when stressed too. In a preliminary study, they also recorded ultrasonic sounds from a spiny pincushion cactus (Mammillaria spinosissima) and the weed henbit dead-nettle (Lamium amplexicaule). Cavitation is a possible explanation for how the plants generate the sounds, they say.
Enabling farmers to listen for water-stressed plants could “open a new direction in the field of precision agriculture”, the researchers suggest. They add that such an ability will be increasingly important as climate change exposes more areas to drought.
“The suggestion that the sounds that drought-stressed plants make could be used in precision agriculture seems feasible if it is not too costly to set up the recording in a field situation,” says Anne Visscher at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the UK.
She warns that the results can’t yet be broadened out to other stresses, such as salt or temperature, because these may not lead to sounds. In addition, there have been no experiments to show whether moths or any other animal can hear and respond to the sounds the plants make, so that idea remains speculative for now, she says.
If plants are making sounds when stressed, cavitation is the most likely mechanism, says Edward Farmer at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. But he is sceptical of the findings, and would like to see more in the way of controls.
Farmer adds that the idea moths might be listening to plants and shunning stressed ones is a “little too speculative”, and there are already plenty of explanations for why insects avoid some plants and not others.