Trees Emit Chemical to Communicate Danger

During unusually high temperatures and droughts, researchers have found that walnut trees emit large amounts of aspirin into the air, possibly as a warning to other trees to prepare for the changes.

[social_buttons]Scientists with National Center for Atmospheric Research hope that the findings will open new doors to study how plants impact air quality, but also to develop a warning system to tell farmers when crops are beginning to fail. Scientists have long-known that plants in laboratory settings can produce aspirin-like chemicals, but this study is first known record of plants emitting noticeable levels of the chemical into an ecosystem when under stress.

“Unlike humans, who are advised to take aspirin as a fever suppressant, plants have the ability to produce their own mix of aspirin-like chemicals, triggering the formation of proteins that boost their biochemical defenses and reduce injury,” said Thomas Karl, the lead scientist for the study. “Our measurements show that significant amounts of the chemical can be detected in the atmosphere as plants respond to drought, unseasonable temperatures, or other stresses.”

In Colorado, the researchers mounted instruments atop towers 100 feet in the air and measured the change in air composition as the trees reacted to a local drought with abnormally desert-like temperatures, cold at night and blistering in the day. The scientists compared the increase in the aspirin to an immune response in an animal, but with a built-in warning system for the rest of the ecosystem.

“These findings show tangible proof that plant-to-plant communication occurs on the ecosystem level,” said Alex Guenther, who co-authored the study. “It appears that plants have the ability to communicate through the atmosphere.”

Photo Credit: Pierreyves on Flickr under Creative Commons license.

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  1. Ruth McMurtry

    Sounds great; however, I found that the lying in a hammock under two English Walnut trees at the height of a drought was not pleasant. It didn’t fee all that cool –as compared to Maples. There was a slight smell more like that found in Black Walnuts. Perhaps, the aspirin-like substance is more a carrier for a warning oil.

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