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Research: Do plants have personalities?

An international authority on plant communications says they do -- particularly when they sense a threat.

Kathy Keatley Garvey, Senior writer

August 3, 2022

3 Min Read
Richard “Rick” Karban is an international authority on plant communications and a distinguished professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.Kathy Keatley Garvey/UC-Davis

Do plants have personalities?

Yes,  if you use the term “personality” to refer to “intraspecific expression of behaviors that are stable over time and consistent across different situations,” says ecologist Richard "Rick" Karban, an international authority on plant communications and a distinguished professor at the University of California, Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.

“Individual plants respond differently to alarm calls, just as individual animals do,” says Karban, a 40-year member of the UC Davis faculty who has studied plant communication in sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) since 1995 on his research site, located east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  

In a newly published paper in the international peer-reviewed journal, Oecoogia, the UC Davis professor and two colleagues found that when plants tell their neighbors—via volatile cues—that they are under attack by herbivores, the plants showed consistent individual variation in how they perceived and responded to the cues, that is, how effectively they shored up their defenses.

“The gist of the argument here is that animal behaviorists have found it useful to recognize that individual animals show behavioral tendencies that are consistent under different circumstances and repeatable over time,” Karban explained.  “So, for instance, some individuals are bolder or shyer in terms of issuing or responding to alarm calls. They have termed these individual tendencies 'personalities.' We have found similar consistent individual differences among sagebrush plants.”

Related: $25m grant helps scientists probe plant ‘language’

The paper, titled “Consistent Individual Variation in Plant Communication: Do Plants Have Personalities?,” is co-authored by Patrick Grof-Tisza of the University of Eastern Finland and Charline Couchoux of the University of Quebec. Established in 1968, Oecoogia is one of the most cited ecology journals.

“Just as animal biologists have come to consider consistent individual personalities to be an important factor in shaping animal phenotypes, behaviors, and interactions, so, too, should plant biologists include individual variation in plant communication as a significant individual attribute that influences their evolution and ecology,” they noted.

In their abstract, they explained that “When animals sense danger, some individuals will alert neighbors with alarm calls and both calling and responding vary consistently among individuals. Plants, including sagebrush, emit volatile cues when they are attacked by herbivores and neighbors perceive these cues and reduce their own damage.”

The researchers “experimentally transferred volatiles between pairs of sagebrush plants to evaluate whether individuals showed consistent variation in their effectiveness as emitters and as receivers of cues, measured in terms of reduced herbivore damage.” They found that 64 percent of the variance in chewing damage to branches over the growing season “was attributable to the identity of the individual receiving the cues. This variation could have been caused by inherent differences in the plants as well as by differences in the environments where they grew and their histories.”

Source: University of California, Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

About the Author(s)

Kathy Keatley Garvey

Senior writer, UC-Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology

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