How Plants Communicate and Defend Themselves

Just as many animals recognize and protect their kin; plants damaged by herbivores emit volatiles that cause their neighbors, especially those that are related, to adjust their defenses. These adjustments reduce rates of damage and increase plant growth.

| March 12, 2013

Richard Karban

Ecologist Richard Karban of the UC Davis Department of Entomology studying kin relationship in sagebrush.

Photo By Richard Karban

Reposted with permission from UC Davis Department of Entomology. 

If you’re a sagebrush and your nearby kin is being eaten by a grasshopper, deer, jackrabbit, caterpillar or other predator, it’s good to be closely related. Through volatile (chemical) cues, your kin will inform you of the danger so you can adjust your defenses.

If you’re not closely related, communication won’t be as effective.

Newly published research in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences shows that kin have distinct advantages when it comes to plant communication, just as “the ability of many animals to recognize kin has allowed them to evolve diverse cooperative behaviors,” says lead researcher and ecologist Richard Karban, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology.

For example, fire ants can recognize kin. “Ants will destroy queens that are not relatives but protect those who are,” Karban said.

That ability is less well studied for plants, until now.

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