Seperating noise pollution from the flowers and the trees

noise pollution making a flower happyMost stories about pollution end rather badly, for Mother Nature, at least.

But, scientists from North Carolina have discovered a plant that is very grateful for the noisy clamour created by man.

Plants can’t leave a noisy neighbourhood

There is noise pollution and noise pollution.

A plant that finds itself living on the edge of a busy highway, is subject to the wurr of roaring engines screaming past on a regular basis, as well as highway fumes. Things might be bad all day, but few roads don’t experience a lull in the volume of noise in the wee hours of the morning.

But for a plant residing at a natural gas site – there is no lull. The natural gas well is coupled with a compressor, which bellows ALL the time, day and night as it extracts the gas.

Animals living in such environments have the option to move, for a plant, picking up your roots and moving is not an option. You’re pretty much stuck.

Plants don’t “hear” but pollinators do

On the face of it, since plants don’t really “hear”, the noise problem is unlikely to cause them sleepless nights.

For plants, the dilemma of noise typically impacts their reproductive capabilities. Plants typically rely on “others” to help shift their pollen around.

For “ugly” plants, the elements i.e. wind, water etc. do the pollen lifting, so a noisy neighbourhood is not too problematic.

But “pretty” plants are advertising their wares to a host of other creatures, including birds, bees and bats. The “other” creatures typically have quite well defined sensory systems and hear NOISE.

These sound waves have the potential to spill over to the world of plants.

Ripple effect

Researchers from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Centre in Durham, North Carolina wanted to learn a little bit more about how human noises impact plants.

The team started tracking the response of the fauna and flora to the compressors in Rattlesnake Canyon Wildlife Area in New Mexico.

It is not always bad

The first big surprise was that not everyone shuns noise. Some animals actually gravitate to noisy environments, just like some humans. This odd behaviour has a knock on effect on the plants that depend on animal interactions.

The research team discovered both black-chinned hummingbirds and the scarlet gilia , loved living in the shadow of the compressor din.

The case of the scarlet gilia

The scarlet gilia is a common red wildflower which depends on hummingbirds for pollination.

The team created “artificial” scarlet gilias. Artificial sounds very out of this world, in a nut shell, the team provided sugar water in little microcentrifuge tubes, which were buried in a red plastic flower. The advantage of the artificial system, was that it allowed the researchers to tally up, just how much pollen was moving around.

You can buy similar devices to attract hummingbirds to your garden. Hummingbirds are sugar addicts, so as far as they are concerned sugar is sugar.

Black chinned hummingbirds love the noise

The artificial flowers were set up around the natural gas site.

Flowers closest to the compressors ended up being in the pound seats, because the black chinned hummingbirds (Archilochus alexandi) went gaga near the compressors, feeding five times more frequently at these flowers, than at flowers located in quieter neighbourhoods.

So why did the black chinned hummingbirds like the noise ? Because their arch nemesis, the western scrub jay, didn’t. Humming-birds were just going with the flow and the scarlet gilia plants reaped the benefit.

Not all a bed of scarlet gilias

no noise making flower unhappyUnfortunately not all plants end up benefiting from man made noise.

The team documented the plight of the piñon pine (Pinus edulis). These trees depend on “other” creatures eating their seeds, which are tucked inside cones. A big player in getting these seeds distributed is………………. the western scrub jay.

So the pine trees end up being stressed by noise pollution. The long term effect is profound, since it takes years for one of those seeds to become a tree. And whole ecosystems ultimately depend on those big trees to survive.


Noise pollution still pollution

We live in a noisy world. A lot of the time, we really enjoy the noise, but noise pollution is still noise pollution and it is disrupting your ecosystem too.

After all, a noisy street does more than just keep you awake at night

Noise pollution alters ecological services: enhanced pollination and disrupted seed dispersal. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2012 Francis, C., N. Kleist,  C.P. Ortega, A. Cruz.  

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Further reading

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