Theory of ‘smart’ plants may explain the evolution of global ecosystems

“It’s easy to think of plants as passive features of their environments, doing as the land prescribes, serving as a backdrop to the bustling animal kingdom.

“But what if the ecosystems of the world take their various forms because plant “decisions” make them that way? A new theory presented by Princeton University researchers in the journal Nature Plants suggests that in some cases that may be exactly what happens. In one of the first global theories of land-biome evolution, the researchers write that plants may actively behave in ways that not only benefit themselves but also determine the productivity and composition of their environs.

“Our theory explains biomes based on the new idea that we must consider plants to be smart and strategic,” said senior author Lars Hedin, a Princeton professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and department chair. “This is a global theory that explains why biomes differ in nutrient conditions and in their abilities to respond to disturbances and to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”  From: phys.org

GR:  This article by reputable scientists and published by a reputable journal troubles me. Thinking back to J.P. Grime’s book “Plant Strategies and Vegetation,” I wonder if the authors simply overlooked relevant literature when the proposed and then interpreted their research.  Adding more life-history variations to Grime’s work would be preferable to striking out on an independent course to rediscover Grime’s ideas. This interpretive remark by one of the authors is especially troubling:   “Tropical nitrogen-fixing plants are smart enough to know when to use costly nitrogen fixation to compete with neighboring plants, and when to turn it off, as if they are sentient beings,” Hedin said.

Frederick E. Clements had edged toward the idea that vegetation behaved as an organism as it matured. I believe H. A. Gleason demolished this idea quite well in his 1926 paper:  “The Individualistic Concept of the Plant Association” (Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club).

 

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