If someone said to you that mushrooms have their own language of at least 50 words that they use to communicate with each other, you might ask which of these mushrooms they ate in order to hear them talk and was “White Rabbit” playing in the background? However, if the person was Andrew Adamatzky, a computer science professor at the University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol, you may want to listen too – he has evidence to back it up in a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
“In our venture to decode the language of fungi, we first uncover if all species of fungi exhibit similar characteristics of electrical spiking activity. Then we characterize the proposed language of fungi by distributions of word length and complexity of sentences.”
Adamatzky knew that nearly living creatures without nervous systems still produce spikes of electrical activity. That list includes mushrooms – experiments show oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus djamor) produced spikes of high and low frequency, another species (Ganoderma resinaceum) produced spikes up to 8 minutes apart, and both produced bursts of spikes similar to that observed in creatures with central nervous systems. That led to step one – determine if all mushrooms create these bursts of electrical spikes.
“We recorded extracellular electrical activity of four species of fungi. We found evidences of the spike trains propagating along the mycelium network. We speculated that fungal electrical activity is a manifestation of the information communicated between distant parts of the fungal colonies.”
In the study, Adamatzky details how his team inserted electrodes into the ground around four mushroom species -- enoki, split gill, ghost and caterpillar fungus. The electrodes were among the mushrooms’ mycelium – the bunches of hyphae threads that form their roots. What he found was – unlike walls – these roots could ‘talk’.
“We found that distributions of lengths of spike trains, measured in a number of spikes, follow the distribution of word lengths in human languages. We found that size of fungal lexicon can be up to 50 words; however, the core lexicon of most frequently used words does not exceed 15–20 words.”
The researcher found that the most ‘talkative’ mushroom species was the split gill (Schizophyllum commune) – this was based on the number of spikes generated. Adamatzky noted that the spikes were not random, so he was able to identify groups of similar spikes into ‘words’, and then groups of words into ‘sentences’. Correlating the fungal words with human language, he found their average word length was similar to English and Russian.
So, what do mushrooms talk about when they think we’re not listening?
Adamtzky tells The Guardian he believes the language is used to organize mushrooms in a way similar to how wolf howls organize a pack. Other words may direct the underground mycelia (roots) towards nutrients and away from danger. Can mushrooms tell when there’s a human or a truffle pig in the area? Adamtzky admits that much more research is needed and the electrical signals could be just that – pulses caused by the natural act of growing and seeking food. On the other hand, they could be even more sophisticated than just a language – the study suggest they could be fungal algorithms similar to recently discovered chemical Turing machines capable of calculations.
What are the ‘shrooms saying now?
“One day, we will make them bow to their fungal overlords!”