pea plants in bottles in a row. pea plants in bottles in a row. These things are smarter than they look. (Photo: Tim Masters / Shutterstock)

Pea-brained plants gamble better than we do

A new study found that plants can assess risk and reward.

We may need to stop using "pea-brain" as an insult. A new study conducted by scientists from the U.K.'s Oxford University and Israel's Tel-Hai College found that pea plants may be good for more than pea soup. In fact, they can make sophisticated judgments about where to lay their roots, even when unpredictability and risk come into play.

How do you figure out how good plants are at gambling? Well, first you (you being a scientist) take a bunch of pea plants and divide their roots between a pot with stable nutrients and a pot with changing amounts of nutrients. So the plants have one safe bet, and one risky bet.

The scientists found that when the safe bet pot had high nutrients, the plants laid more roots in it. Makes sense. But here's the surprise: when the safe bet pot had low nutrients, the plants laid their roots in the risky pot. The plants somehow knew that they were better off taking a gamble than sticking with the stable low-nutrient pot.

pea plantIt makes sense for plants to take more risks when they're facing bad conditions. (Photo: Buppha/Shutterstock)

“They are less than pea brains, they are no brains. But they did it," said Dr. Alex Kacelnik, an ecologist at Oxford University who worked on the study.

So plants are good gamblers. And you know who are bad gamblers? Humans. Humans will often take more risks when they're losing because they get swept up in emotion, one reason behavioral economists like Dan Ariely study how irrational humans can be. Plants, however, don't seem prone to making emotional mistakes.

“It raises a question, not about plants, but about animals and humans," said Dr. Hagai Shemesh, a researcher at Israel's Tel-Hai College involved in the study. “We have a very fancy brain, but maybe most of the time we’re not using it.”


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