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Research Suggests Mushrooms Talk to Each Other With a Vocabulary of 50 ‘Words’

For people wanting their minds blown, the kingdom of fungi is a never-ending box of tricks.

Mycologists studying the underground filaments of fungi are observing electrical signals similar to a nervous system: a normal phenomenon, except that they found the signals were remarkably similar to human language.

When filaments called ‘hyphae’ of a wood-digesting fungal species discover a bit of wood to munch on underground, the hyphae begin to light up with “spikes” of electrical signals that reach out to the hyphae of other individuals, and even trees.

“Spikes of electrical potential are typically considered to be key attributes of neurons, and neuronal spiking activity is interpreted as a language of a nervous system,” wrote Professor Andrew Adamatzky from the University of the West of England, in a paper he published on the investigations. “However, almost all creatures without nervous system produce spikes of electrical potential.”

To see what characteristics these electrical impulse spikes share with nervous system language of other lifeforms, Adamatzky put tiny electrodes into pieces of material, feeding on which were four species: enoki, split gill, ghost, and caterpillar fungi.

Compared to humans

The authors set the electrical spikes against a series of human linguistic phenomena that were used to successfully decode part of the carved language of the Picts, the Bronze Age people of Scotland. The average length of a human-expressed vowel is between 300 and 70 milliseconds, and so they assumed that if there was a 0 millisecond break between spikes, that was part of the same “word.”

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C. militaris fungi had trains of electrical spikes of an almost identical length to English words, while split gill fungi spikes were even more closely identical to the average word length in the Greek language. Around fifty ‘words’ could be identified based on repetition.

“Assuming that spikes of electrical activity are used by fungi to communicate and process information in mycelium networks, we group spikes into words and provide a linguistic and information complexity analysis of the fungal spiking activity,” writes Adamatzky. “We demonstrate that distributions of fungal word lengths match that of human languages.”

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The split gill fungus formed the most complex “sentence structures,” and Professor Adamatzky suggested that the most likely purpose for this electrical dialogue is to keep integrity between the parts of the mycelium. Mycelia makes up more than 90% of the total biomass of fungi, and the filaments can stretch for hundreds of feet, connecting trees, other plants, and other fungi, so keeping the mycelia integrated, Adamatzky said, could be similar to the way wolves howl to keep all members of the pack integrated.

Some scientists are skeptical that the research was done looking for ‘language’, suggesting that this puts a shroud of exaggeration and overexcitement about the findings.

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To his credit, Adamatzky explained to the Guardian that it could be simply that the electrically-charged tips of hyphae were just creating electromagnetic reactions as they explore the forest underground.

It’s not the first piece of science that suggests life outside Animalia communicate with language. Tree scientist Peter Wohlleben believes trees produce scents instead of words, and that soon a computer will be able to detect and attach purposes to the scents, and translate them into words.

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