Do mushrooms talk to each other? A new study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, suggests that they do, through the use of electrical signals – and that their language is complex.

In observing the spikes of electrical activity in particular species of fungi, computer scientist Andrew Adamatzky at the University of the West of England found patterns that were strikingly similar to human language. Through experiments, he translated the spikes into a lexicon of 50 ‘words’ based on patterns typically associated with human speech. The electrical signals responded to changes in the environment such as food and injury.

To record this activity, Adamatzky attached electrodes to four species of fungus – ghost, Enoki, split gill and caterpillar – and monitored it every second over 24 hours. The findings revealed that each species had its own way of communicating. For example, while Enoki fungi used a rich spectrum of diverse patterns of electrical activity, exhibiting low-frequency irregular oscillations, the split gill fungus transitioned from low- to high-amplitude spikes (and was one of the fastest-spiking species Adamatzky recorded in all his experiments). The research also found that electrical currents were involved in the interaction between mycelium and plant roots during the formation of mycorrhizal fungus.

Decoding the language of fungi could do a lot to help us understand changes in the environment. “If we could plug into mycelial networks and interpret the signals they use to process information, we could learn more about what was happening in an ecosystem,” Merlin Sheldrake points out in his book Entangled Life. “Fungi could report changes in soil quality, water purity, pollution, or any other features of the environment that they are sensitive to.”

As Sheldrake also mentions, however, limited research has been conducted in the field of electrical fungal activity. Whilst Adamatzky’s study provides the stepping stones for future research, it is limited to what Adamatzky identifies as “primitive classification”. Further research is needed to understand the possibility of fungal language in more detail, such as syntax and grammar – if, of course, such things exist in the fungal world.

Yasmin Dahnoun is editorial assistant at Resurgence & Ecologist.