Fungi May Speak in a Language Similar to Humans
“What did one mushroom say to the other? Ah, there wasn’t muchroom for conversation.” Mushroom jokes occupy a niche space in the comic zeitgeist. New research adds to this intrigue: fungi, the glorious self-contained organisms thriving silently, maybe decent communicators. In fact, their way of communicating may even be similar to humans.
The fungus kingdom includes everything from yeasts and moulds to the more familiar mushrooms. Turns out, mushrooms may send electric spikes to each other. Published in the Royal Society Open Science on Wednesday, the study found curious similarities between them and human communication. The researchers analyzed the patterns in these electric spikes and found them akin to a “language.”
The mushrooms in question included four fungi species: enoki, split gill, ghost, and caterpillar fungi. The researchers looked at activity in the hyphae — a long, branching, filamentous structure of a fungus that has also been likened to neurons. The fungi send electrical signals to one another through hyphae; according to the data, these spikes occurred in clusters. The pattern of these strikes, along with the vibration length, resembled a human vocabulary of up to 50 words. A very liberal explanation would be that mushrooms may recognize 50 words.
“We demonstrate that distributions of fungal word lengths match that of human languages,” writes Adam Adamatsky, a computer scientist at the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of West of England, in the paper. The average length of each said “word” was 5.97 letters (in comparison, the average letters per word in English come somewhere around 4.8. According to Adamatsky, this indicated “minds and a consciousness.”
Interestingly, these impulses seemed to fasten when fungi encountered new sources of food; suggesting that fungi are using actual “language” to let each other know about new food sources. In some cases, the fungi may be using these spikes to indicate their presence — similar to a “wolf’s howl,” as Adamatsky explained. Or maybe these trains of communication may be used to tell other parts of the fungus (mycelium, a root-like structure) about the presence of attractants or repellants in the area.
But it raises an intriguing question: can mushrooms talk to each other?
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A fungal language — the lexicon built on these electric spikes — is, however, a matter of speculation. “This new paper detects rhythmic patterns in electric signals, of a similar frequency as the nutrient pulses we found,” University of Exeter mycologist Dan Bebber, a coauthor on previous studies on the phenomenon, told The Guardian. “Though interesting, the interpretation as the language seems somewhat overenthusiastic, and would require far more research and testing of critical hypotheses before we see ‘Fungus’ on Google Translate.”
What Bebber means is the spikes could be just rhythms of physical processes that allow the organisms to function — and may indeed be bereft of any meaning. Maybe “they are saying nothing” at all, one researcher commented. To understand the framework of a fungal grammar system more exploration — with a wider subset of the fungal kingdom — would need to be carried out.
It’s not exactly unheard of that plants speak to each other. Research into this field has shown evidence of plants having the ability to correspond with each other and have unique forms of communication too; a 2018 study found how plants even use their roots to “listen in” on their neighbors. Others may send airborne signals when under attack. The consensus, tepidly growing, seems to be that plants may send, receive, and interpret messages.
Fungi is not a plant or an animal. But that these ecological organisms may partake in conversation and even have similar communication styles is incredibly fascinating.
If nothing else, the concept of mushrooms “talking” to each other may be the fung-iest joke proposed.