Plants ‘Hear Themselves’ Being Eaten


If you’re munching on a tasty salad or biting into a crisp red apple as you read this you may want to brace yourself, the food you’re eating can hear you. 

Okay, hear may be a slight exaggeration but if the evidence presented by researchers at the University of Missouri is true then plants can identify sounds in their environment and react to them.

According to their study plants, upon hearing the crunch of a caterpillar chomping their leaves, release mustard oils, which wards off the little green worms the New Zealand Herald reports.

Heidi Appel of the Bond Life Sciences Center at MU:

Previous research has investigated how plants respond to acoustic energy, including music. However, our work is the first example of how plants respond to an ecologically relevant vibration.

We found that ‘feeding vibrations’ signal changes in the plant cells’ metabolism, creating more defensive chemicals that can repel attacks from caterpillars.

Appel, senior research scientist in the Division of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources collaborated with Rex Cocroft, professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at MU.


Their study found that Arabidopsis, a small cabbage like plant,  when subjected to the chewing of a caterpillar was capable of responding to the noise.

They proved this by exposing one plant to the noise, while keeping another in silence as a control plant. They then allowed caterpillars to feed on both plants.

The one that had been exposed to the recording of the caterpillars produced more defensive mustard oils, than the other test group of plants.


Cocroft concluded:

What is remarkable is that the plants exposed to different vibrations, including those made by a gentle wind or different insect sounds that share some acoustic features with caterpillar feeding vibrations did not increase their chemical defences.

This indicates that the plants are able to distinguish feeding vibrations from other common sources of environmental vibration.

The study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation was published in Oecologia, and the results could be applied to agricultural sectors.

Of course it’s worth noting plants don’t really hear instead they simply have the potential to elicit their own defence mechanisms from pests and crop killers when certain vibrations are omitted.


Appel and Croft’s now plan on determining how and why plants sense vibrations.

In light of this new information it will be interesting to see the vegetarian, and perhaps more interestingly the vegan community’s, response to these new claims.

Will it force them to rethink their diet and eating habits once more, or will they continue to eat plants regardless of the possible implication that they are physically hurting sentient beings who are aware and have pain receptors?

That being said, there are a host of other considerations vegetarians can justifiably still appeal to.