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Pea Plants Show Ability To Take Risks And Gamble For Nutrients

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If you were born cautious, you probably weigh the potential risks and benefits first before making a tough, life-altering decision.

Just like humans, pea plants also call the shots: they make choices and gamble based on assessments of risk, despite lacking brains.

This incredibly ability to take risks - considered the first seen in plants - was demonstrated in a new study conducted by international scientists.

Are Pea Plants Risk-Takers?

Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University and researchers from Tel-Hai College grew several pea plants that had their roots separated between two pots.

Each plant was faced with the decision: how much effort would they allocate to grow roots in each of the pots?

During the first test, Kacelnik and his team discovered that plants grew more roots in the pot that contained more nutrients as much as animals use more time to scavenge in patches richer with food.

Afterward, researchers divided the roots of the plants between two pots that provided the same average nutrient levels.

However, one of two pots still offered a constant level of nutrients. In the second pot, the nutrient levels varied over time. Researchers wondered whether the pea plant would choose to grow more roots in one over the other.

Kacelnik and his colleagues then turned to theoretical analyses to determine an answer: they analyzed how decision makers such as animals and humans should respond to such circumstances.

Making Decisions

When the average nutrient levels were low, researchers predicted that pea plants might prefer the more inconstant pot, thus taking in more risk. In this setting, the more irregular pot is a gamble, but one that could pay off in the long run.

But when the levels of average nutrients were high, Kacelnik and his team predicted that the plants would choose just the opposite. There was no reason to take risks with the more unpredictable environment.

In order to test their theory, the scientists compared the choice that plants had to make with the choice of a person. In a hypothetical scenario, a person can choose to take $800 or toss a coin for half a chance of winning $1,000 and half a chance of ending up with nothing.

On average, most people would realize that the first choice would pay more and would like it if there are no other restrictions, said Kacelnik. But if the person were stranded with no money in a far-flung place and getting $900 would get him home, the choice would probably be different.

How Do Pea Plants Do It?

Kacelnik and his team have yet to understand how the pea plants can sense variance or even if they are physiologically adapted to respond to the risk. Nevertheless, the study demonstrates well that pea plants are "dynamic strategists" with the ability to make decisions.

Kacelnik said this does not mean that pea plants are intelligent in the sense used in animals, but rather, that complex behaviors can be executed by these organisms to take advantage of natural opportunities.

Details of the study are published in the journal Current Biology.

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