One of my favorite characters in “The Wizard of OZ ” is the Cowardly Lion. I especially liked the forest scene where he successfully intimidated the Scarecrow and Tin Man, only to be slapped down by Dorothy when he chased after Toto. Obviously, the Cowardly Lion did not know when (and when not) to engage in competitive behavior.
Other animals are often faced with the same decision. Their survival depends on making the right decision. Male mountain lions , for example, mark their ~25-100 sq. mile territories with scrapes of dirt, leaves and urine. When other mountain lions come across those scrapes, they have a choice to make: stay and compete for resources (put ‘em up), or find a new territory.
We assume that animals have the brainpower to make these decisions. But what about plants? Not much brain power there. However, in 2010, Canadian scientists published the results of a plant study  that, in a roundabout way, explored this very question. They were interested in seeing if plants, like animals, could integrate several types of information to develop an “optimal foraging strategy”.
For their experiment, they used Velvetleaf  (Abutilon theophrasti). Originally an import from Asia in the 1700’s, this 5’ tall plant with yellow flowers  has been found in California  since the early 1900’s. Using a mini-rhizotron camera , they measured Velvetleaf root growth using four different growing conditions:
Condition 1) One Velvetleaf plant in a pot with soil containing a uniform distribution of nutrients. Result - the roots grew evenly throughout the pot. Not a big surprise, especially for anyone who grows houseplants.
Condition 2) One Velvetleaf plant in a pot with soil containing nutrients on one side of the soil. Result - the roots grew where the nutrients were concentrated. Again, not suprising.
Condition 3) Two Velvetleaf plants in a pot with soil containing a uniform distribution of nutrients. Result - “there was complete segregation of the root systems; the plants avoided contact with one another”. Hmmm...there was plenty to go around, so the plants did NOT compete with each other.
Condition 4) Two Velvetleaf plants in a pot with soil containing nutrients distributed between the two plants. Result - “both plants grew their roots much closer towards each other”. Hmmm...the plants DID compete with each other.
These Velvetleaf plants took into consideration two pieces of information - the location of nutrients and location of competitors - and acted upon that information. Sounds a bit like using your brain, doesn’t it? Perhaps, just like we saw in the “Wizard of Oz”, brains can be found in unexpected places.
You can listen to stories like this every Friday morning at 7:10 a.m. on "The SCV Outdoor Report", brought to you by your hometown radio station KHTS (AM1220) and by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.
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