Have the mushrooms been talking to each other the entire time? Perhaps.
You may have stepped and mentally tripped on some mushrooms, but you would never have imagined that mushrooms could be so chatty in the forest.
An investigation of the electrical spike-based “language” used by fungi to communicate, published on Wednesday (April 6) in the peer-reviewed journal Royal Society Open Science, reveals that the patterns in these spikes are strikingly similar to human speech.
Fungi communicate with one another via hyphae, which are long, filamentous tendrils that the organisms use to grow and explore. As per a report by The Guardian, previous research has shown that when fungi encounter new food sources, the number of electrical impulses traveling through hyphae, which is sometimes compared to neurons, increases, suggesting that fungi may use this “language” to notify each other about new food sources or injury.
Professor Andrew Adamatzky of the University of the West of England’s Unconventional Computing Laboratory was curious to see if fungi exhibited cognitive abilities with spikes of electrical activity after discovering slime mould did. In his study, published in Royal Society Open Science, Adamatzky analysed the patterns of electrical spikes generated by four species of fungi: enoki, split gill, ghost, and caterpillar. He implanted tiny electrodes into substrates colonized by mushroom hyphae and measured their electrical activity.
The data showed that the electrical spikes often occurred in clusters, which Adamatsky says resemble a human vocabulary of up to 50 words.
“We do not know if there is a direct relationship between spiking patterns in fungi and human speech. Possibly not,” Adamatzky wrote. “On the other hand, there are many similarities in information processing in living substrates of different classes, families and species. I was just curious to compare.”
According to Adamatsky, fungi in a network may use spike trains to signal their presence, similar to a wolf’s howl. The professor also noted that the fungi’s average word length was 5.97 letters, whereas the English language averages 4.8 letters per word. According to Adamatzky, this ultimately proves that the species has its own mind and consciousness.
“There is also another option—they are saying nothing,” he tells The Guardian—that is, the spikes could be meaningless byproducts of physical processes. But countering this idea, the “spiking events” don’t appear to be random, he adds.
“Assuming that spikes of electrical activity are used by fungi to communicate, we demonstrate that distributions of fungal word lengths match that of human languages,” he continued. “We found that the size of fungal vocabulary can be up to 50 words, however, the core vocabulary of most frequently used words does not exceed 15 to 20 words.”
At the same time, however, the expert also believes the species could be saying nothing at all. “Propagating mycelium tips are electrically charged and, therefore, when the charged tips pass in a pair of differential electrodes, a spike in the potential difference is recorded,” he wrote.
Other scientists are skeptical that these spikes are a form of fungal language. Pulsing behavior has been recorded previously as fungi transport nutrients, which might cause the spikes seen in the new study.
Dan Bebber, an associate professor of biosciences at the University of Exeter and a member of the British Mycological Society’s fungal biology research committee, believes that more evidence is needed before scientists are willing to accept fungi as a form of language.
“This new paper detects rhythmic patterns in electric signals that have the same frequency as the nutrient pulses we discovered,” he told The Guardian. “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.”
Adamatzky further highlighted how this process would take time to develop. “We are yet to decipher the language of cats and dogs despite living with them for centuries and research into electrical communication of fungi is in its pure infant stage,” he concluded. Nevertheless, imagine if one day you could Google Translate “I hope you don’t mind me doing this” into a fungi’s language and play it back to them for a guilt-free shiitake hunt.