We know that plants can learn, and make decisions, and we now have a new level of insight into the decision-making process plants go through when put under pressure, vying with competitors for limited access to sunlight.
It turns out that plants can adapt to the size and strength of their nearby neighbors, deciding how best to survive considering what's happening around them, according to a new study. Read the full paper Decision-making in plants under competition at Nature.com.
Plants can plastically respond to light competition in three strategies, comprising vertical growth, which promotes competitive dominance; shade tolerance, which maximizes performance under shade; or lateral growth, which offers avoidance of competition. Here, we test the hypothesis that plants can ‘choose’ between these responses, according to their abilities to competitively overcome their neighbors. We study this hypothesis in the clonal plant Potentilla reptans using an experimental setup that simulates both the height and density of neighbors, thus presenting plants with different light-competition scenarios. Potentilla reptans exhibit the highest vertical growth under simulated short-dense neighbors, highest specific leaf area (leaf area/dry mass) under tall-dense neighbors, and tend to increase total stolon length under tall-sparse neighbors. These responses suggest shifts between ‘confrontational’ vertical growth, shade tolerance and lateral-avoidance, respectively, and provide evidence that plants adopt one of several alternative plastic responses in a way that optimally corresponds to prevailing light-competition scenarios.