Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was chock-a-block full of whimsical characters such as a hookah-smoking caterpillar and a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts playing-card. Although animals and some objects in the story are able to speak, somehow the idea of a talking mushroom was too far-out even for Carroll’s rich imagination.
The book depicts a colorful hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom on which Alice dines (without so much as a parental warning) to become large or small. But while the Cheshire cat is chatty, the mushroom remains mum.
As proof that reality can be stranger than fiction, scientists believe they have recently found several species which are able to communicate in complex phrases. Not species of talking cats, but mushrooms endowed with the gift of language. It’s old news that fungi transfer information chemically under the ground. This new discovery suggests that as fungi decompose wood, they might also be composing sonnets, love-poems or grocery lists.
It may seem odd that language is “just” a theory. This is quite different from a hypothesis, which is an unproven theory. Language, gravity, climate change, evolution, and nuclear energy are all theories. We have overwhelming evidence they exist, yet we continually study them because we recognize there is always more to know.
Humans once believed we had a monopoly on language. But scientists popped our ego-bubble by pointing out that before Homo sapiens appeared on Earth some 350,000 years ago, a related species called Homo erectus had been roaming the landscape for two million years with some form of spoken language. This is inferred by the complexity of the cooperative activities Homo erectus were known to engage in, such as boat-building and navigation. Apparently, none of their early Tik-Tok videos survived, so we’re not sure what they sounded like.
Yet human language is not defined by speech alone. Deaf children learn sign language at the same rate as hearing children learn to speak. And for centuries, we have communicated over long distance: first with written letters; later by Morse code through the telegraph system, and now by ones and zeroes which are transmitted digitally and converted to voice, text, and images.
Where non-human animals are concerned, it’s clear that a great deal of communication happens: woodpeckers drum on dead trees and tin roofs to define territories; wolves howl to maintain integrity of their pack. Even trees share information about insect pests by transmitting chemicals through root grafts. But it’s often hard to draw the line between communication, which may be genetically coded and inflexible, and language, which is acquired, as well as malleable.
Honey bees engage in a Miley Cyrus butt-waggle interpretive dance which imparts a wealth of detail about food quality, quantity, and location. Unfortunately, we can’t tell if they are also bragging about personal-best pollen loads or gossiping about the queen.
Some animals clearly have a form of spoken language. Whales, for example, have what biologists call unique “acoustic name tags” (and what we’d call “names”) for themselves. These names are recognized within their kinship clan. Each group has its own dialect which is learned by baby whales through imitation.
Dogs communicate by vocalizing, though mainly through smell and body language. However, experts have found that dogs can learn the meaning of 150 human words on average. Exceptional breeds like Border collies can be trained to recognize up to 250 words, equivalent to the vocabulary of a two-year-old child.
Well move over, Rover: a recent UK study found several kinds of mushrooms that appear to be communicating in complex phrases using a vocabulary of about fifty “words.” Not as bright as Bowser, who knows 150 words, but hey – they’re fungi, not smart guys.
These fungi “talked” using electrical impulses, which is not as weird as it sounds. It’s long been known that fungi generate minute electrical charges in response to stimuli. Certain species have very intricate responses, with pulses grouped differently depending on the situation. More than fifty discrete pulse-groupings have been identified, and these groupings are used in various ways within longer strings of pulses. All of this suggests a possible language of sorts.
An April 6, 2022 article in The Guardian highlighted the work of Andrew Adamatzky, a professor at the University of the West of England who works in their Unconventional Computing Laboratory. By inserting microelectrodes into fungal mycelia, Adamatzky analyzed the patterns of electrical spikes generated by four species of fungi. Enoki, split-gill, and ghost fungi were used, and in a potential nod to Alice in Wonderland, the caterpillar fungus also made the list.
The author of the article, Linda Geddes, writes that the fungal electrical pulses documented in the research were often grouped in ways that resembled patterns of human speech. As quoted in The Guardian, the professor admitted “We do not know if there is a direct relationship between spiking patterns in fungi and human speech.” But Adamatzky was adamant that “Whatever these ‘spiking events’ represent, they do not appear to be random.”
He hypothesizes that the fungal “language” may help maintain the integrity of the fungal colony, analogous to vocalization by packs of wild canids. It also could be a “report” to the rest of the colony that a distant hypha (fungal thread) has encountered a food source or a hazardous situation, according to the professor.
But in a comment that clearly explains why Adamatzky is in the sciences and not in marketing, he added, “There is also another option – they are saying nothing.” It took a few seconds for me to realize this remark doesn’t mean he’s saying fungi have no language. I bet we all can think of politicians and others who talk a lot but say nothing.
Adamatzky’s research is published in Royal Society Open Source. You can find the full report here.
Photo of Amanita muscaria courtesy Wikimedia user Onderwijsgek.