BENGALURU: Prof Renee M Borges was always fascinated about plants and their ability to communicate with other life forms. The focus of her studies at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, has been how plants and animals communicate.
She has now deduced that plants are equally adept in the art of signalling and communication as in the animal world.
For the last few decades, Borges has been studying aspects of plant communication and their language. She has been visiting the Western Ghats and other areas for her studies, which included studies in the forests of Agumbe, Kodagu, and Bengaluru.
“We frequently go to the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary to study pollination systems in seasonal cloud forests. The sanctuary hosts endemic plants, animals, and some unique endangered species such as the painted bat,” she added.
When do plants talk?
It is only during pollination and seed dispersal time that plants seek the help of other species of the animal world by calling out to them in a unique way. One way they call out is by releasing into the air a molecular cocktail (volatile chemicals) that animals can easily pick up using their olfactory senses. Such heady cocktails can be smelt during the blooming of a flower or the ripening of a fruit.
Studying this symbiotic relationship between the plant and the animal world, Borges explains ‘plant talk’ by illustrating an example of a plant-animal mutual dependence which has been in existence for 80 million years. This is the relationship between the fig tree and the fig wasp, she said.
Fig tree-wasp talk
The fruit of the fig plant extends its services to wasps as a nursery for the young ones. Inside the fig are tiny male flowers that contain pollen or female flowers that require pollen for pollination. Mother wasps that hear the ‘smelly’ talk of the fig tree from the figs, fly towards these plants and enter into them in order to lay their eggs. When the female hatchlings come out of the nursery, they carry pollen, which can fertilize female flowers inside the next fig they enter.
In the forest, there are thousands of other such alliances between various species that need to be studied and Prof Borges tries to unravel many through her work, like how the olfactory system of an animal can distinguish a smell signal that is meant for it, from the molecular soup of smells that exist in forests.