The patterns that fungi like mushrooms use to communicate are said to be “strikingly similar” to those of human speech. But how?:
Fungi send electrical signals to one another through hyphae—long, filamentous tendrils that the organisms use to grow and explore. The Guardian reports that previous research shows that the number of electrical impulses traveling through hyphae, sometimes likened to neurons, increases when fungi encounter new sources of food, and that this suggests it’s possible that fungi use this “language” to let each other know about new food sources or injury.Natalia Mesa, “Can Mushrooms “Talk” to Each Other?” at The Scientist (April 6, 2022) The paper is open access.
When researchers studied that, they discovered that the messages were somewhat complex:
“A fungal word length averaged over four species […] is 5.97 which is of the same range as an average word length in some human languages, e.g. 4.8 in English and 6 in Russian,” Adamatsky writes in the paper.Natalia Mesa, “Can Mushrooms “Talk” to Each Other?” at The Scientist (April 6, 2022) The paper is open access.
But what are fungi talking about?:
Like howling wolves, the fungi could be signaling their presence to one another, Adamatzky tells Hannah Osborne for Newsweek. They could also be saying nothing, but the spiking events are not random, Adamastzky added.Elizabeth Gamillo, “Mushrooms May Communicate With Each Other Using Electrical Impulses” at Smithsonian Magazine (April 12, 2022)
Wait. Wolves are not an appropriate comparison . Wolves have emotions — as humans understand the concept — much as dogs do:
We can be fairly sure that our salad mushrooms are not experiencing any such emotions. Fungi turn out — like most life forms — to have complex signalling systems:
While researchers can agree that the patterns are not random, more study is needed before making mushroomese an official language.
“Though interesting, the interpretation as language seems somewhat overenthusiastic, and would require far more research and testing of critical hypotheses before we see ‘Fungus’ on Google Translate,” said University of Exeter mycologist Dan Bebber, a co-author on previous studies on the phenomenon, who suggested the electrical impulses could be indicative of active nutrient foraging.Ben Cost, “Mushrooms can talk to — and protect — each other with ‘up to 50 words’” at New York Post (April 7, 2022)
If we assume that nature is full of intelligence, smart systems for active nutrient foraging is roughly what we might expect of mushrooms and other fungi. Unlike plants, fungi can’t produce food from the environment via photosynthesis. And unlike animals, they can’t just hunt it down. They live on the detritus of other life forms and depend on information about where to find it.
Given the amount of information in nature, it is not surprising that fungi communicate, as plants do, about surrounding conditions. But no, they are not talking about our lives, any more than a smart alarm system is.
As one researcher put it, it will be a long time before we see “‘Fungus’ on Google Translate.” As in, never. In the meantime, we can enjoy the remarkable intelligence displayed in fungi.
You may also wish to read: How plants talk when we’re not around. Some aspects of plant behavior can be studied in the same terms as animal or human behavior. Consciousness? Plant communications are extensive and perhaps much more complex than, say, computers, even though, as with computers, no one is likely “home.”