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SYFY WIRE fungus

The secret language of mushrooms: How fungi use electricity to speak

If you listen closely, you can hear them saying, "Our princess is in another castle!"

By Cassidy Ward
Cordyceps militaris fungus

There’s a lot about the world of Super Mario Bros. that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why are plumbers tasked with saving the world? Are Mario and Bowser friends or enemies? Friends to enemies? We may never know. One of the longest running debates centers on what, exactly, the deal is with Toad’s bulbous dome. Is it a hat? Is it his head? Is it both, a loose hat surrounding an unusually shaped cranium? According to Yoshiaki Koizumi, producer of Super Mario Odyssey, it’s just his head. That means Toad is, in fact, a sentient mushroom person capable of maintaining complex social relationships and, of course, driving a go-kart. Koizumi left the details of Toad’s biology intentionally vague, so we might have to wait for the upcoming Super Nintendo World opening at Universal Studios Hollywood to learn more.

While the notion of a mushroom capable of communicating with the world around it might seem like the sort of thing that only happens in fictional worlds populated with flying turtles and pipe-based transportation systems, it might be more realistic than we thought. According to a recent paper published in The Royal Society, there might be a vast fungal communications network running through the soil beneath our feet.

Andrew Adamatzky, from the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of West England, studied the electrical activity generated by fungal colonies in hopes of parsing their method of communication and found some similarities to human language.

“I inserted electrodes into the substrate colonized by fungal mycelium and observed action potential like spiking. I found that the spikes group in trains, and analyzed the statistics of the train lengths,” Adamatzky told SYFY WIRE.

Fungus With Electrodes

The mycelium is the root system built by fungal colonies which helps to break down nutrients and deliver them to the organism. The study presents evidence that it also operates as an organic network of telephone lines sending signals to different parts of the fungus.

Analysis of the electrical spikes uncovered similarities in length to words in human languages, suggesting there might be some universal structure for communication, even across vastly different organisms.

“So far, there are similarities in the average length of a spike train in fungi and the average length of words in English. Also, the distributions of spike train lengths and word lengths have a similar shape,” Adamatzky said.

Based on the observations, Adamatzky believes fungi may have a vocabulary of up to 50 words, with the majority of communication using between 15 and 20. Moreover, some species appear to be more verbose than others, which is another reason they might not be all that different from people. We’ve met folks who just won’t shut up, too.

Further research could help to decode some of what the fungi are communicating, by associating specific electrical activity with particular stimuli. That work is already underway.

“In other studies, we found that patterns of electrical activity change in response to electrical, optical, chemical, and mechanical stimulation,” Adamatzky said.

As the work moves forward, Adamatzky suggests looking at a more diverse set of fungal species to identify what level of variety they have in their electrical activity and if there is overlap across species. Continued study could put together a sort of dictionary of fungal language which we could use to study the environment by listening in on how fungi are reacting to the world around them.

All things considered, maybe it isn’t that weird that Toad can communicate with humans. This study provides evidence that it isn’t a huge leap between the structure of the fungal telegraph network and the construction of human language.

Honestly, it makes it even more terrifying that Mario eats giant mushrooms in order to gain power ups. Is he a hero or a monster? That’s the debate we should be having.