Email Print Share

"Pest Test" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
Audio Play Audio
The Discovery Files podcast is available through iTunes or you can add the RSS feed to your podcast receiver. You can also access the series via AudioNow® by calling 641-552-8180 on any telephone.

University of Missouri experiments mark the first time scientists have shown that a plant responds to an ecologically relevant sound in its environment.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Pesting (Sound effect: tap mic) 1-2-3--pesting.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: actual caterpillar munching sounds from mu) This is the actual sound of a caterpillar having lunch. Yeah, leaf again. Hungry little guy. A University of Missouri study has found that these chewing vibrations can cause the plant to take action.

Previous research investigated how plants respond to acoustic energy, including music. The Missouri study used audio and chemical analysis to look at the response to more "ecologically relevant" vibrations.

Using specialized lasers, the team measured and recorded leaf vibrations during a caterpillar buffet. Next, two sets of plants were exposed to either no sound or the recorded sounds of caterpillar munching (Sound effect: caterpillar munching sounds) played back to the plants using tiny actuators that vibrated the leaves precisely as feeding caterpillars would.

When real caterpillars later fed on both sets of plants, the plants that had been exposed to the "bad vibes" produced more of a defensive chemical that caterpillars find (Sound effect: cartoon caterpillar: bleaaah!) unappealing.

Somehow the plants were able to discern the munching vibrations from other environmental sounds. Further study is needed, but the researchers believe using vibrations to enhance plant defenses could be useful to agriculture.

Let's hope the caterpillars never learn about take-out.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

General Restrictions:
Images and other media in the National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery are available for use in print and electronic material by NSF employees, members of the media, university staff, teachers and the general public. All media in the gallery are intended for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial use only.

Images credited to the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, are in the public domain. The images were created by employees of the United States Government as part of their official duties or prepared by contractors as "works for hire" for NSF. You may freely use NSF-credited images and, at your discretion, credit NSF with a "Courtesy: National Science Foundation" notation. Additional information about general usage can be found in Conditions.

MP3 icon
NSF podcasts are in mp3 format for easy download to desktop and laptops, as well as mobile devices capable of playing them.