Mushrooms may 'talk' to each other using up to 50 'words'

It's trippy.
Derya Ozdemir
The photo credit line may appear like thisAlex Blessing/iStock

Mushrooms are solitary creatures who don't move or prey on others. But it's possible that they might just chatter.

In a recent study, a scientist at the University of the West of England implanted electrodes into four different types of fungi and found that they seem to communicate internally using electrical impulses about food or an injury.

A mathematical analysis of the electrical signals that fungi send to each other revealed that the patterns in these "messages" are surprisingly similar to human speech.

In fact, the scientist found that the signal groups are so sophisticated that they actually resemble words — leading to the discovery that a mushroom's vocabulary may contain around 50 words.

The secret life of fungi

Fungi communicate with one another via hyphae, which are long, branching, filamentous tendrils that the organisms utilize to expand and explore their surroundings.

Previous research has shown that when mushrooms find new food sources, the amount of electrical impulses going through hyphae rises, suggesting that fungi may utilize this "language" to notify each other about new food sources, according to The Guardian

In the new study, Adam Adamatzky, a computer scientist at the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of West of England, decided to investigate whether these signals are analogous to human language by focusing on four types of mushrooms: enoki, split gill, ghost, and caterpillar fungi. To find out, he inserted electrodes into substrates colonized by the mushroom’s hyphae and measured their electrical activity. 

"We do not know if there is a direct relationship between spiking patterns in fungi and human speech. Possibly not,” Adamatzky explained. “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 study, which was published in Royal Society Open Science, discovered that these spikes frequently clustered into trains of activity. In fact, they resembled vocabularies of up to 50 words, although none used more than 15 to 20 frequently. The distribution of these “fungal word lengths” was similar to that of human languages, with split gills producing the most complicated "sentences" of all.

“There is also another option – they are saying nothing,” Adamatzky 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.”

A dash of skepticism

While the findings are intriguing, it's best to remain skeptical before considering whether we should have dictionaries devoted to the "Fungus" language. After all, just like a magic mushroom trip, it's possible that it's all in our heads.

Some scientists are unconvinced that the recorded spikes represent a type of fungal communication, since pulsing behavior has previously been recorded during fungi moving nutrients. This could explain the spikes observed in the latest study.

Dan Bebber, Associate Professor in Ecology at the Department of Biosciences of the University of Exeter told The Guardian, "Though interesting, the interpretation as language seems somewhat overenthusiastic, and would require far more research and testing of critical hypotheses before we see ‘Fungus’ on Google Translate."

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