Would You Still Eat Plants if You Thought They Could Hear You Doing It?

Vegetarians and vegans, this story may set your teeth on edge. How would you feel if you discovered that those plants you’re eating may be aware on some level that you’re eating them?

Have a bit of respect as you chomp on that celery stalk or spear that leafy green salad with your pointy fork. A new study says it has definitive evidence that at least one species of plant knows when it’s being attacked — and it can defend itself.

Researchers from the University of Missouri (MU) recorded the sounds of caterpillars feasting on plant leaves. To create their study’s baseline, they placed a caterpillar on a leaf of a plant called Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant that belongs to the mustard and cabbage family. They measured how the leaf moved as the caterpillar fed on it.

The next part is where this study becomes utterly fascinating. The researchers set up two groupings of plants. For one set, they played the caterpillar munching “sounds” — which were really vibrations — for several hours. The other set of plants “heard” nothing but silence.

When the team placed caterpillars on the leaves of both sets of plants, the set that had been “listening” to or feeling the caterpillar munching vibrations produced noticeably more mustard oils — a substance many caterpillars despise and won’t eat. See MU’s video report on this study here:

“We found that ‘feeding vibrations’ signal changes in the plant cells’ metabolism, creating more defensive chemicals that can repel attacks from caterpillars,” said Heidi Appel, an MU senior research scientist, in a press release.

“What is remarkable is that the plants exposed to different vibrations, including those made by a gentle wind or different insect sounds that share some acoustic features with caterpillar feeding vibrations did not increase their chemical defenses,” said MU’s Prof. Rex Cocroft, who collaborated on this study. “This indicates that the plants are able to distinguish feeding vibrations from other common sources of environmental vibration.”

In other words, the plants knew they were under attack from an enemy, and they responded in a way clearly meant to drive that enemy away, using a home-grown sort of “pesticide.”

“Caterpillars react to this chemical defense by crawling away, so using vibrations to enhance plant defenses could be useful to agriculture,” Appel said. “This research also opens the window of plant behavior a little wider, showing that plants have many of the same responses to outside influences that animals do, even though the responses look different.”

Obviously, no one’s going to stop eating vegetables because of this study, except perhaps for this confused young woman you might remember from the movie Notting Hill:

As for vegans and vegetarians, we can expect to hear more than a few guffaws from our meat eating friends about all this. Oh, how can we possibly continue to eat plants if they know we’re about to murder them? Yes, it’s all quite funny.

Should this little anti-veggie joke arise, perhaps we can use it as an opportunity to demonstrate that plant-based eaters are not as “hippie dippy” and charmingly odd as some would prefer to believe. You won’t catch many of us worrying about the well being of plants in the wake of this study.

There’s a monumental difference between understanding that a plant has a built-in defense mode and refusing to participate in the factory farming horrors our society imposes each day on intelligent, gentle, sentient creatures like cows, pigs, turkeys and chickens. Nearly everyone realizes this, of course, but don’t be surprised if a meat-eater tries to challenge your plant-based diet by citing this study, if only in jest.

No contest. I’ll keep eating the plants. I’ll also look forward to seeing future research into the potential for naturally induced insecticides. This study appears to validate that such a concept is worth a closer look.

Care2 readers, what do you think? Tell us in the comments below.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven11 months ago

thanks for the article.

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla1 years ago

Really?? I appreciate the article, but what do you want us to eat? Rocks?

Warren Biggs
Warren Biggs2 years ago

Actually most of Amazonian tribes live primarily on meat and starchy tubers. The traditional Masai diet is meat, a milk/blood mixture, and more meat. The Inuit and Yupik who live too far north to grow vegetables also subsist on animal products. I can't think of any tribe who lives exclusively on plants.

Donna F.
Donna F2 years ago

OH PLEASE! STOP pushing guilt onto people simply because we consume food! every living thing has the right to eat. enough!

Felicia D.
Felicia D2 years ago

Any person who has done even a little shamanic training would have been able to tell us this information. ALL beings feel, perceive their world and react to it. It's not just us or "animals" or whatever, but ALL BEINGS. This includes the Earth. There is no escape or way out of the food chain. All beings want to live and reproduce, all beings feel pain when eaten and all beings must eat to remain alive. It's a tough thing and very difficult to face. The other side of the coin is that we chose to be here, to dance with Creator in the life-death continuum and to experience everything that this plane has to offer. The trick is, in my opinion, to do this with gratefulness and kindness to the best of our ability. Then all life and death can become a sacrament and a way of getting closer to the Divine. But of course, "your mileage my vary."

pam w.
pam w2 years ago

Julija asks "Show me a person who can live on a 100% meat-based diet." (Or words to that effect.) OK...The Buddhists of Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, the Innuit and other native peoples of Alaska. Masai men....LOTS of people live on a 100% animal-based diet. (The Masai feed their children a mixture of milk, ashes and fresh blood, collected every day from the neck of a cow.)

If you can't grow crops (no water, infertile soil, inhospitable climate) you WILL follow your domesticated animals from forage to forage and then eat them when you're hungry.

Mongolians use their horses for transportation and food. The same is true of many people.

Our bodies will adapt.

Suzana Megles
Suzana Megles2 years ago

Oh please another- but plants suffer too. Well, obviously God was aware of this if it is true which I do not believe it is. He would not have given our first parents grain, fruits, and seeds which would cause them pain. Because they respond to some stimuli doesn't put them anywhere near the classification of sentient animals who have the same circulatory and digestive systems they share with us. We are really torturing our animals in the cafos from hell. I certainly don't believe I as a vegan am causing pain to plant life. It was God's gift to us and given a choice - I believe plants don't suffer, but animals do.

Deborah J.
Deborah J2 years ago

Being mindful of the food we eat - its source, its quality and quantity - is good for our mental and physical health. Whether it's a food chain or circle of life, plants have a part to play (also releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, another vital process!). It's interesting to read studies about how their senses work and evoke responses, but this doesn't make them "sentient beings" for whose well-being we humans need to actively care.

Dale O.

Julija M stated:

"Show me one person who can survive eating ONLY meat and/or 100% meat-based food."

That can often depend on location, food sources and culture and the meat eaten is not the average western fare.

"How many servings of fruits and vegetables did most Arctic peoples eat most days of the year? Zero. How much fiber is there in a seal, or a fish, or an Arctic bird? None whatsoever...These unique groups of people were the subjects of intense medical investigation several decades ago, and there have been numerous scientific articles written about their diet and health."