We know that mushrooms are hyper-intelligent fungal bodies. Now research shows that they might actually have a language they communicate with each other in.
A new study published last week in Royal Society Open Science shows mushrooms communicate messages to each other through an electrical language that bears an undeniable resemblance to patterns of human speech, the Guardian reports.
Previous research shows that fungi emit electrical impulses through long, underground filamentous structures called hyphae (the interconnecting fibers that makeup mycelium) — similar to how nerve cells transmit information in humans.
This previous research shows that the firing rate of these mushroom impulses increases when the hyphae of wood-eating fungi come into contact with wooden blocks, suggesting that fungi use this electrical “language” to share information about food or injury with other mushrooms on the same chain of mycelium, or with hyphae-connected partners, such as trees.
But do these trains of electrical activity have anything in common with human language? Based on mathematical analysis, yes. But how? To investigate, Prof Andrew Adamatzky at the University of the West of England’s unconventional computing laboratory in Bristol analyzed the patterns of electrical spikes generated by four species of fungi: Enoki, split gill, ghost, and caterpillar fungi.
He conducted this analysis by inserting tiny electrodes into substrates colonized by the mushrooms’ mycelium.
“We do not know if there is a direct relationship between spiking patterns in fungi and human speech. Possibly not,” Adamatzky said to the Guardian. “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.”
The research found that these spikes of electricity often clustered into trains of activity, resembling vocabularies of up to 50 words, and that the distribution of these “fungal word lengths” closely matched those of human languages.
Split gill mushrooms, which grow on decaying wood — and whose fruiting bodies resemble undulating waves of tightly packed coral — generated the most complex “sentences” of all.
Adamtzky suggests that the most likely reasons for the waves of electrical activity are to maintain the fungi’s integrity — the same way wolves howl to maintain the integrity of their pack — or to report newly discovered sources of attractants and repellents to other parts of their mycelia.
“There is also another option – they are saying nothing,” he said. “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 followed up that statement, however, saying that whatever these “spiking events” represent, they don’t appear to be random.
Other scientists would like to see more evidence before they’re willing to accept this mycelial electricity as a language. Other types of “pulsing behavior” have been recorded in fungal networks, such as pulsing nutrient transport. It’s believed this is possibly caused by rhythmic growth as fungi forage for food.
“This new paper detects rhythmic patterns in electric signals, of a similar frequency as the nutrient pulses we found,” said 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.
“Though interesting, the interpretation as language seems somewhat over-enthusiastic and would require far more research and testing of critical hypotheses before we see ‘Fungus’ on Google Translate.