Desertification Research Centre
Symbols and Signals in Plant Communication
People communicate using visual and auditory signals, symbols and occasional olfactory cues. Plants, when communicating with animals use some of these means too, often for inducing some specific behaviour in animals. Being on the lower level of food chain, their plantness is an inadvertent cue of edibility for many animals. Plants “want” to avoid being eaten too much and have evolved many behaviours to defend themselves, but in addition to that also signals to prove their inedibility. Signalling toxicity so that herbivore understands and goes elsewhere would be evolutionarily beneficial, but are such signals real? Are they easy to simulate? How authentic they need to be in order to work? (sharp vs soft spikes, bad flavour vs real toxicity).
Possibly even more important than occasional communication with animals or insects, plants also constantly communicate with each other. Being rooted in place, they intertwine with their neighbours, compete for shared resources and cannot escape from each other. Plant-plant communication seems to be mostly chemical, using soluble or volatile cues, but some researchers have also presented interesting cases for visual information transfer. All these signals have to be meaningful in the light of evolution and less costly than not communicating – voicelessness is a disadvantage if everyone around you speaks and listens.
Sirgi Saar is a researcher of Plant Ecology in University of Tartu. She is currently located in Valencia, Spain as a postdoctoral researcher in Desertification Research Centre and working with rice. Sirgi wanted to become a scientist since childhood and started her first student research at the age of eight, continuing with different biology-themed topics throughout her school years. At the age of 18 she took part of International Biology Olympiad in Argentina. Her main research interests in university were plant behaviour (plant-plant interactions, biotic feedbacks), which led to exchange semesters in universities of South Bohemia (Czech Republic), Wageningen (Netherlands) and Manchester (England). After defending a PhD degree in University of Tartu she worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Italian Institute of Technology (plant-inspired biorobotics) and currently is trying to find an ecological complementarity between different rice varieties to make them naturally suppress agricultural weeds and reduce the need for herbicides. In addition to basic research in ecology she is interested in biosemiotics, potential cognitive abilities of plants and open to interdisciplinary collaborations.