Plant Behavioural Ecology


Visible plant behaviour, exemplified by adaptive phenotypic plasticity, results from the challenge of exploiting patchy resource distribution and competition as well as herbivory and disease. Key concepts to understand plant behaviour and behavioural ecology require systems understanding and the consequences of self‐organisation and distributed control. This article extends these concepts into niche formation and its exploitation by intelligent foraging. Seed dormancy is employed to optimise the future niche for the seedling. Adaptive phenotypic plasticity, local signalling producing local responses, arises from distributed control. The ability of leaves to control their internal temperature is a prime example. Competition for plant resources is fundamental to selection and extends its system structure. Game theory describes the necessary individual interactions. The shade avoidance and root proliferation syndromes are reactive schedules designed to outwit other competing plants. The phenotypic changes necessary for these schedules are controlled by the cambium that demarcates resource distribution. Territory is also competed for and requires forms of self‐recognition, all experimentally observed. Finally, competition for mates, the ultimate determinant of fitness, occurs but in ways different to those in animals.

Key Concepts

  • Biology is a system of systems.
  • Self-organisation is key to behaviour.
  • Self-organisation requires distributed control.
  • The niche extends the plant system.
  • Intelligent foraging required for fitness.
  • Distributed control in tissues.
  • Competition extends the system.
  • Game theory and fitness.
  • Competition over territory requires self‐recognition.
  • Competition for plant mates.

Keywords: intelligence; systems organisation; niche; foraging; competition; game theory; territoriality

Figure 1. (a) The Charnov model of optimal foraging. The curves indicate the trajectories of net energy uptake from three hosts ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’. Optimal foraging, that is, optimising the energy gained to the energy invested, is indicated by the dotted asymptotes to each curve. The very thick straight line joins together the points of asymptote contact for each host to indicate how optimal foraging works for different hosts. Failure to go through the zero point indicates biological error in foraging. Based on the Charnov (1976) model for optimal foraging for animals. (b) The parasite Dodder forages according to the Charnov (1976) animal optimal foraging model. Six different hosts were used to estimate energy invested versus energy gain during parasitical exploitation by Dodder. Energy gained was measured after 28 days as net increase in weight. Energy invested was calculated from the coil length used to parasitize the host. Note the identity with Charnov theory (a) indicating that Dodder optimally forages and that Dodder determines energy investment well before any net energy gain. Data redrawn from Kelly (1990).


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Trewavas, Anthony J(Mar 2015) Plant Behavioural Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003672.pub2]