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Do plants know they are being eaten?

Plants have long been known for their amazing ability to adapt and respond to their environment. From growing towards the sun to defend themselves against pathogens, plants have a remarkable repertoire of defense mechanisms. But what about when it comes to being eaten by herbivores? Do plants know they are being consumed? A recent study from the University of Missouri suggests that plants are not only aware of being eaten but also possess the ability to respond and defend themselves. In this blog post, we will delve into the fascinating world of plant-herbivore interactions and explore how plants perceive and respond to herbivory.

Overview of Plant Defense Mechanisms

Before we dive into the specifics of how plants sense and respond to herbivory, let’s first understand the arsenal of defense mechanisms that plants possess. There are two main categories of plant defenses: constitutive defenses, which are always present, and induced defenses, which are activated in response to herbivore attack.

Constitutive defenses include physical barriers such as thorns and trichomes, as well as chemical defenses like toxins and secondary metabolites. These defenses act as deterrents, making it difficult for herbivores to feed on the plants. For example, trichomes can physically impede herbivores by causing irritation or entrapment, while toxins and secondary metabolites can be harmful or even lethal to herbivores.

Induced defenses, on the other hand, are only activated when plants perceive the presence of herbivores. These defenses can be triggered through a signaling pathway known as the jasmonate pathway. When herbivory is detected, plants produce jasmonic acid, a hormone that initiates a cascade of defense responses. Induced defenses can include increased production of toxins and secondary metabolites, as well as the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that act as communication signals.

Plant Perception of Herbivory

One might wonder how plants are able to perceive that they are being eaten. While plants lack a central nervous system like animals do, they have developed mechanisms to sense and respond to their environment. In the case of herbivory, plants have been found to detect feeding vibrations and recognize herbivore-produced cues.

Research has shown that plants can detect subtle vibrations caused by herbivores feeding on their leaves. In a study conducted at the University of Missouri, researchers exposed common milkweed plants to the sound of caterpillar feeding. The plants responded by increasing their production of toxic chemicals, which can deter further feeding by the herbivores. This suggests that plants can sense and respond to the vibrations created by herbivory.

In addition to vibrations, plants can also recognize chemical cues released by herbivores. When herbivores chew or damage plant tissues, they release certain compounds that act as signals to neighboring plants. These cues can trigger defense responses in nearby plants, even if they have not been directly attacked. This phenomenon, known as ‘plant communication,’ allows plants to prepare for impending herbivory and enhances their collective defense capabilities.

Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms Involved in Plant Perception

The ability of plants to perceive and respond to herbivory is not merely a passive process. It involves intricate molecular and cellular mechanisms that allow plants to detect and interpret the signals from herbivore attack. Key players in this process are receptor proteins and signal transduction pathways.

Plants have specific receptor proteins that can recognize herbivore-induced signals or ‘damage-associated molecular patterns’ (DAMPs). These receptor proteins trigger a cascade of molecular events, leading to the activation of defense responses. For example, when plants perceive the presence of herbivores, the jasmonate pathway mentioned earlier is activated, leading to the production of defense-related compounds.

The role of DAMPs extends beyond just detecting herbivore attack. DAMPs also play a crucial role in plant defense against pathogens and other stresses. Thus, plant perception of herbivory is tightly integrated with overall plant defense strategies.

Plant Responses to Herbivory

Once plants perceive herbivory, they initiate a range of responses to protect themselves from further damage. These responses involve the activation of inducible defenses, adjustment of resource allocation, and initiation of physical defenses.

Inducible defenses include the increased production of toxins and secondary metabolites, which can render the plant unpalatable or toxic for herbivores. These compounds can directly deter feeding or inhibit herbivore growth and reproduction. Additionally, plants enhance the expression of defense-related genes to bolster their defense mechanisms.

In response to herbivory, plants also adjust their resource allocation. They may reduce photosynthetic rates and redirect energy and nutrients towards defense-related processes. This reallocation of resources allows plants to prioritize defense over growth and reproduction, increasing their chances of survival.

On a structural level, plants can initiate physical defenses to protect themselves against herbivores. This can involve the production of thorns, trichomes, or tough cell walls, all of which act as physical barriers and make it harder for herbivores to feed on the plant. These physical defenses can also reduce water loss and protect against pathogens.

Communication Between Plants

The concept of plant communication might seem strange, but it is becoming increasingly recognized that plants can communicate with each other, especially in response to herbivory. This communication can occur through airborne signals and through the root system.

When a plant is attacked by herbivores, it can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. These VOCs can serve as signals to neighboring plants, alerting them to the presence of herbivores. In some cases, these airborne signals can even attract predatory insects or parasitoids that feed on the herbivores, providing an indirect form of defense for the plants.

Plants can also transmit warning signals through their root system. When a plant is attacked, it can release chemical signals into the surrounding soil, creating a chemical ‘alarm.’ These signals can travel through the root system and alert neighboring plants, causing them to initiate their own defense responses. This root-mediated communication adds another layer of coordination to plant defense strategies.

Implications and Applications

Understanding how plants perceive and respond to herbivory has significant implications for ecology and agriculture. Plant-herbivore interactions have shaped the evolution of both plants and herbivores, leading to co-evolutionary adaptations. Studying these interactions can provide insights into community structure and dynamics, as well as the ecological balance between plants and herbivores.

In the context of agriculture, this knowledge can be utilized to develop more sustainable and efficient crop protection strategies. By manipulating plant responses to herbivory, we can enhance plant defenses against pests, reducing the reliance on chemical pesticides. This can be achieved through the development of biocontrol agents or genetic modifications that enhance plant defense responses.


Plants may lack a nervous system, but their ability to perceive and respond to herbivory is truly remarkable. Through sophisticated mechanisms, plants can detect and interpret signals from herbivore attack, triggering a cascade of defense responses. From the production of toxins and secondary metabolites to the initiation of physical defenses, plants have developed an array of strategies to defend themselves against herbivores. Furthermore, they can communicate with each other, warning neighboring plants of impending danger. The study of plant-herbivore interactions not only expands our understanding of plant biology but also has practical implications for agriculture and ecological conservation. As we continue to unlock the secrets of plant defense mechanisms, we open up new possibilities for sustainable and harmonious coexistence between plants and herbivores.


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