Plant science

Plants Make sounds… That Animals Can Hear!?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing over and over about this new discovery that stressed plants make sounds.

Sometimes my two dogs jump up at the same time and bark to let me know that they heard something (that I obviously didn’t hear)… Coincidence? I don’t think so!

The Scientific Study

I often say that my plants talk to me. They show it when things are not going well: spots, loss of tone, coloring… But we now know that they also emit ultrasounds to lament.

I imagine my rather limp plant screaming in a very high-pitched voice: «I’M THIIIIIIIRSTYYYYYYYY!!!”… And inevitably, my scientific mind wonders: do animals hear? What is the purpose of these sounds? Are they all equivalent according to the type of stress or the type of plant? What a cacophony, it must be in the forest in full drought!

I’ve consulted the scientific article at the source of this discovery because by reading the different texts, I realized that the journalists did not all grasp the same information… And I want to know if my dogs really hear my plants!

Here’s some information taken directly from the article in question.

1. How Do Plants Make Sounds?

It’s long been known that plants under stress (not from school or work, but from environmental stress such as lack of water or light) can emit vibrations. These are obviously minimal and are caused by pressure changes in the plant.

As for airborne sounds (sounds are vibrations that travel through the air), it’s likely that they would also come from pressure changes in the channels of the plants. Think of a flute, or a balloon: they don’t produce the same sounds depending on the force of the air (pressure), or on the “outlets” of that air. These changes in pressure create vibrations that are audible. Think of a vibrating guitar string.

Photo : Nothing Ahead

2. How Can You Hear These Sounds?

Our human ears unfortunately cannot. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to hear all my plants lamenting the mistreatment they receive.

These sounds don’t carry very far. During the study, microphones were positioned a few dozen centimeters away from the plants. Moreover, the sounds are in a frequency inaudible to the human ear (a bit like the ultrasounds of bats).

I would have liked to tell you more about decibels and hertz, but after reading the article, as well as the Wikipedia page on decibels, I have to admit that I don’t understand any of these sound calculations!

Let’s just say that the sounds are too high and too low for the human ear. You need special microphones to record these sounds, computer programs to modify and amplify them so that you can hear them (or rather see them thanks to the sound curves) and, obviously, be an expert in the field!

Une des images tirées de l’article. Aux figures C et D, vous avez un aperçu de ces sons émis par les plantes. Source : Cell

3. Who Hears These Sounds (What Are They For)?

Very good question! What is the use of “saying”: OUCH! SOMEBODY HAS CUT A BRANCH!

Here, we are in the world of assumptions. The study was able to show that plants make different sounds depending on the species and the nature of the stress (in this case, drought or cutting). However, some hypotheses make a lot of sense.

Some moths that can hear these sounds might use them to choose the right tree to lay eggs in. Indeed, a stressed tree might be a less good choice: they want a healthy host to put their babies in!

Also, plants may react to sound to protect themselves from drought. If a neighbor is short of water and we perceive his stress, we manage not to lose our own water unnecessarily and we slow down his transpiration (yes, plants breathe and transpire!).

I remember hearing about a tree that emitted pheromones when it was nibbled by an animal. It warned its neighbors, who sent a compound into their leaves to present an unpleasant taste and protect themselves. Maybe there is a similar influence with sounds?

I really hope for a future study on why plants have developed this mechanism and what is its role in nature, but for now, knowing that it exists is a good start!

The authors of the article would like to see this knowledge used one day, for example to understand plants in the field or in greenhouses in order to increase productivity, or to identify stress early on. They discovered that the plant emits sounds faster and faster depending on the intensity of the stress. Why wait for our plant to get low? As soon as it makes sounds, hop! A little water!

What to Do With All This?

For the moment, not much. It’s a great discovery, but it’s still too early to say that we understand plants. Too few species have been tested and we can never be sure that the experiment gave false results since it is the only one documented so far. It’s still really cool!

Personal Observation

The article mentions that the sounds emitted by plants (between 20 and 100 kilohertz (kHz)) can be detected by many mammals and insects at a distance of 3 to 5 meters.

As these sounds are emitted in the spectrum audible by cats and dogs (which hear up to 60 and 50 kHz respectively), I like to believe that (even if I know nothing about sounds) they can hear them. Humans, on the other hand, can’t hear above 20 kHz.

Photo : Brixiv

Does your dog have a favorite tree to pee on? Maybe they have great conversations together!

Does your cat always roll around in your spider plant? Maybe he likes his cries of pain! (Cats are sadists, what do you expect?)

We’re a long way from knowing everything about our surroundings, so why not make some wild guesses?

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

9 comments on “Plants Make sounds… That Animals Can Hear!?

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  4. I was teaching grade 2 about 30 years ago. A little girl, Tracy, came over and said, “Mrs. B the plants need watering.”
    I said, “ how do you know?”
    Tracy replied, “i can hear them screaming”.
    I said, “ok, then please water them”.
    And she did.
    I following day I said, “the next time you hear the plants screaming, please tell me because i want to learn to hear them too”.
    She said, “ my mother told me plants don’t scream”.

  5. Mary L Discuillo

    I’m a bit skeptical as plants don’t have pain receptors to explain cutting grass or pruning “noises'” occurring. Odors or pheromones to communicate with insects I can more easily wrap my head around. Interesting thoughts though. Hopefully more to be revealed.

    • The research doesn’t suggest plants feel pain although I can understand how you might infer that from some of the reporting around this study. I mean, when you have respected journals like New Scientist stating that plants squeal when stressed then it’s a small step into the plants feel pain debate!

      But this is a purely physiological reaction to environmental stress … not proof of plant sentience 🙂

  6. Richard M Merritt

    Maybe plants can make some limited sounds, or vibrate as string theory purports…but the most interesting and misunderstood behavior was not even mentioned? You ever. Hear people say that they love the smelt of freshly mowed grass? Of course , but what is less understood is what scientists have come to believe that that smell is a plant in panicked crisis thinking it is being killed as the mower is literally chopping away big pieces of the plants and the plant is doing everything it can to scream and they assume are trying to warn the neighborhood that they are under attack and are releasing powerful chemical…gives one a whole new perspective on that iconic smell of spring and summer, that made me have a new appreciation for our impact…and makes me wonder what else we are completely clueless about…lol

  7. Christina Marchant

    Thank you for this clear and well-written summary. It filled in a lot of gaps for me!

  8. Excellent, well written account!

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