The Curious Case of a Dancing Plant

Plants aren't generally known for their speed. They tend to move at rates we simply can't perceive. The few species that exhibit rapid movements such as the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) and the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula) have become quite famous as a result. Such movements happen in fits and bursts. These plants certainly cannot maintain such activity. However, there is another plant out there whose activity puts these other plants to shame.

Meet the telegraph plant. It has gone by a handful of scientific names since its discovery (Desmodium motorium, D. gyrans, Hedysarum gyrans, Codariocalyx motorius) but that's not why its famous. This Asian legume is renown for its maneuvers. Its compound leaves are quite active. The larger terminal leaflets move up and down throughout the course of a day but its smaller lateral leaflets exhibit rhythmic movements on the scale of minutes.

Perhaps most famously, the leaflets show an increase in movement when exposed to music. Search the web and you will find lots of videos of the telegraph plant "dancing" to a variety of musical styles. Though entertaining, music is not why this plant moves. Having evolved long before music was ever invented, its movement must have its roots in something a bit more natural. Despite how popular such motion has made this species over the past few centuries, their its function has remained a bit of a mystery.

Before we get into the theories, let's take a closer look at exactly how this plant moves. At the base of its leaflets there sits a ring of cells called the "pulvinus." They act a bit like water balloons and thanks to some dedicated work, it has been found that, when stimulated, these cells can quickly move water in and out via osmosis. This causes the cells to either swell or deflate and this is where the movement originates. Now, onto the why...

A relatively recent opinion piece puts forth some of the most interesting theories on telegraph plant movement yet. The author suggests that leaflet movements are defensive in nature. They believe that the leaves could be mimicking butterfly (or some other winged arthropod movements). In doing so, it may convince gravid female insects that this individual plant is already occupied. Such strategies do indeed exist in some plant species, though via physical adornments rather than movements. Another theory this author puts forth is that this could also attract potential predators. By mimicking the movement of a tasty insect, it could entice birds to come in to take a closer look. Once there, they could easily find other herbivores hiding on the plant.

Another possibility related to defense is that the movements are meant to deter herbivory altogether. Studies on other plants have shown that some species can actually detect the sound of an insect chewing on leaves. This causes an uptick in the production of defense compounds. Perhaps the telegraph plant, when sensing sound waves, increases its movements in order to knock away a hungry insect. Certainly a moving meal is less appealing than a stationary one. This is also thought to be the reason for rapid leaflet closure in sensitive plants. Hungry insects have a hard time hanging on to a plant when the leaf suddenly collapses from underneath it.

Another hypothesis is that these movements are meant to increase sun exposure. It has been discovered that far from only responding to music, the leaflets move throughout the day depending on temperature. When temperatures are low, leaflet movements are more vigorous. They eventually slow down if temperatures are high enough. This hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that movements cease once the sun goes down. In a sense, the leaflets seem to be using temperature as a means of detecting whether or not they are getting as much sun on them as possible.

In reality, it very well could be a mix of these ideas. Natural selection works like that. In the end, movement of the leaflets has certainly benefited the telegraph plant whether it be fore defense or just to take advantage of as much sun as possible. Despite centuries of popularity, this awesome little legume still has some secrets tucked away and I kind of like that about it.

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]