Scientists Find Some Plants Like Touch, Some Don't

ByABC News
March 7, 2001, 7:51 AM

Feb. 28 -- When James Cahill was studying biology at the University of Pennsylvania a few years ago, he was shocked to learn that some of the plants he had been studying out in the field had died.

About half of them, to be precise.

That's not exactly the sort of thing a budding ecologist wants to see, so he took it up with his faculty advisor, Brenda Casper.

Much to his surprise, Casper said she had seen the same thing with some of the plants she had been studying.

"It was quite troublesome," Cahill says, because he didn't think he had done anything to bring on their demise.

"It was hard for us to believe that 50 percent of the plants died in just three months," the length of the various summer research projects, he adds. They wondered if somehow, just by being there, they had managed to kill the plants.

Human Touch Has Effect

Cahill went on to the University of Delaware, but was haunted by the fact that so many plants had died while he was doing little more than measuring their growth. So he teamed up with Casper, and Jeffrey Castelli, a graduate student, to see what they could learn.

What they learned was quite shocking, Cahill says. All it takes to kill some plants is the touch of the human hand, according to their research, published in the February issue of the journal Ecology. But oddly enough, some others apparently profit from the human touch. And some apparently just couldn't care less.

The researchers studied six different plant species in 12 different plots in an old hayfield in Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley. Half of the plants were left undisturbed to serve as controls, but the other half experienced a very simple, non intrusive "visitation" by the biologists once each week for eight weeks.

They didn't want to do anything that would dramatically affect the plant, says Cahill, who has since moved on to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he is an assistant professor of biological science. So the visit amounted to stroking each plant from the base to the tip, as though they were trying to measure its growth, a standard practice in field research.