Current issues roundup: You’re not going crazy edition

3 Oct

It’s common enough to hear people jokingly refer to vegetarians as plant murderers. But today I present you with a study that may cast this notion in a strange new light. That’s right: plants can communicate using sound — and I’m not just talking about the Botanicals Twitter Kit.

Researchers from Britain, Italy and Australia recently found that plants not only respond to sound, but likely use clicking sounds to communicate with one another. The report, published in Trends in Plant Science, details experiments that used powerful acoustic equipment to record clicking sounds coming from the roots of corn plants. A simulated noise produced at the same frequency also caused young roots to grow in the direction of the sound.

While plant bioacoustics are not yet well-understood, Monica Gagliano and her team concluded in this experiment that these plants are potentially communicating with each other, and that response to sound and vibration may play a more important role in plants’ lives than we currently understand.

Scientists have known for some time that plants communicate with one another using chemicals. One of the first observed instances involved cabbage plants producing methyl jasmonate to warn each other of approaching herbivores. This triggered production of a protective, toxic chemical on the leaves of nearby cabbages. Another study shows that, in similar fashion, plants can encourage one another to produce chemicals that will induce insect-on-insect violence. A plant infested with aphids can tell nearby healthy plants to produce a synomone that will call parasitic wasps to the scene to help fight the infestation.

And it’s not an entirely new idea that sounds are important to plant life. A vibrational stimulus like a buzzing bee’s muscles or a prowling herbivore can trigger movement in some plants, as shown to the right. Gagliano has also written about the ability of some plants to produce and interpret drought-related stress signals.

As this sort of research progresses, I share Gagliano’s hope that we will have to reevaluate the human relationship with plants on an ecological level.

Soon, meat eaters may not be the only ones faced with ethical dilemmas at the dinner table!

In related upside-down news, fuels treatments meant to prevent wildfires or reduce their severity may actually make fires worse (or at least that’s how it’s being reported).

The Forest Service recently published its findings on 2010′s Fourmile Canyon Fire, which include the observation that treated areas had little effect on the fire as compared to untreated stands. While this does seem to fly in the face of common sense, it is also much different than saying treatment worsens fire behavior. More accurately, the team of investigators from the Rocky Mountain Research Station found that treatments did nothing to change the progression of the fire (though you’d expect them to slow it down), and this was mainly due to large accumulation of surface fuels left on the ground. The report also cites a problem with tree torching despite wide spacing because their branches hung all the way to the ground, or far enough down to touch brush and other fuels within the canopy dripline.

There is certainly plenty of information in this report that seems to turn current knowledge on its ear. However, it’s important to note that poorly-handled treatments can be fairly expected to be ineffective, or contribute to the opposite effect of what was originally intended. This may not come as news to foresters, but misinterpretation of the report’s findings could make a critical situation in the WUI even worse.

The authors of the report note that the best treatment option for fire mitigation is thinning coupled with surface fuel reduction, and that too much litter, wood chips and limbs remained in the Fourmile Canyon area even after some pile burning was done. I’ve worked in another forest where some surface fuel accumulation was not viewed as all that bad, and where masticators left a lot of it behind just as they did in this part of Colorado. I’d be curious to know if the condition of fuels in my management unit have had a similar effect on the fires there.

Some writers have seized on the topsy-turviness of the failures of these particular treatments and muddied other issues as a result — reporting, for example, that the beetle kill was not deemed to have an effect on fire behavior because the surface fuels are a more important driver of fire behavior. While that very last part is true, it implies that beetle kill has little effect on fire behavior in general. In reality, the report states that beetle kill had very little effect on this fire’s behavior because there wasn’t much of it in the burned area. I can’t imagine how such information must look to someone living in an area of high fire risk; blurring details like this begins to create the impression that everything we know is wrong.

Unfortunately, this sort of conflation only seems to contribute to the most depressingly counter-intuitive finding of all: While WUI residents were familiar with fire,

“most respondents did not believe that characteristics of their structure and the immediate surroundings of the structure were significant factors influencing the likelihood of a wildfire damaging their property within the next five years.”

All this makes me wonder if the public will understand the great distinction between a masticator leaving too much slash behind after a treatment, and fuel treatments simply not working. Or will they just interpret all this information to mean that the advice they’ve been getting for years on thinning and brushing is wrong, or worse — appreciably counterproductive. People have already begun to respond in exactly this manner to news stories that have misconstrued the findings. I can see why the writers of the report consider the long quote above to be a critical finding.

As usual, it looks like foresters and WUI residents have some work to do. Best of luck to us all.

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2 Responses to “Current issues roundup: You’re not going crazy edition”

  1. Alexis Davidson October 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    Another great article! I’m glad you found time to get back to writing.

    • xylem_up October 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

      Ha! I almost forgot this happened! My first foray into auto-scheduling publication ahead of time. :D But yes, I’m glad, too. Hopefully I can keep it up as the semester progresses! Thanks.

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