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Do Plants Hear? Sort of

Don’t party around your plants — they might hear you.

Well, not really. But while plants obviously don’t have ears the way you and I do, new research has suggested that plants are indirectly affected by loud, continuous noise.

Clinton Francis, an ecologist and researcher at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, has spent the last few years studying the relationship between noise pollution and plants in Rattlesnake Canyon in northwestern New Mexico.

Tucked amid this canyon’s many junipers and pines, there are thousands of natural gas wells. About a third of them features compressors that give off constant, ear-splitting noise, running almost constantly all year long.

Francis’ curiosity was initially aroused when he noticed the way that some bird species avoided the noise, while others tended toward it. He reasoned that if birds were affected by the noise, couldn’t plants be affected too?

The results of his research, performed with the help of motion-trigger cameras at the sites of interest, showed both positive and negative effects.

The scrub jay, a bird essential to the depositing of pinon pine seeds, tended to keep away from the loud compressors. The result? Fewer pinon pine seeds were deposited near compressors, so fewer grew there.

As Francis told KQED:

“We’re just not getting as many seeds going into the seed bank in noisy areas, and the ones that do are consumed by the mice.”

On the other hand, because black-chinned hummingbirds seem to like the noise, a flower they pollinated tended to do better near the compressors.

Gail Patricelli, an ecologist at the University of California, also studies the impact of noise on nature. While she applauds Francis’ work, she also notes that there is more work to be done:

“We [still] know remarkably little about what that noise does to the ecosystem.”

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