A vegetative state is a clinical condition that usually refers to patients who have a severe dysfunction of their cerebral hemispheres, resulting in a loss of conscious responses, hence the term vegetative. Well, it turns out we may soon need to update our lexicon as this expression is kind of an insult to plants. Yes, that is because a new scientific study has revealed that plants actually exhibit decision-making behaviors when they are faced with competition.

Plants, which we often think of as primitive creatures, actually possess sophisticated abilities that are similar to those typically found in insects, and even animals. For instance, it is well established that plants can detect the presence of neighbors, and they use that information to adapt their physical responses to external competition. Particularly, plants have been known to use both shade-avoidance and shade-tolerance strategies to maximize their ability to receive light. Shade-avoidance is a set of morphological changes that allows plants to grow taller, thus enhancing their ability to absorb light. On the other hand, shade-tolerance is a much subtle response that basically boosts the plant's performances under limited light conditions. An example of this strategy would be the appearance of leaves that have a larger surface area, enabling them to increase their light-absorption efficiency. What is more, some previous studies have shown that plants can even reduce their elongation level when they are faced with similar adjacent plant species with which they can cooperate.

Another possibility which remained underexplored until recently, is whether plants can switch between different strategies depending on the nature and shape of their competitors. That is exactly what a study published in Nature Communications on December 21st, has evaluated. The scientists designed an experimental setup that simulated the height and density of neighbors to test the clonal plant Potentilla reptans' handling of different light-competition situations. The results not only revealed that this plant's behavior changes from growing vertically to having larges leaves depending on whether the dense opponents are short or tall respectively, but they also expand horizontally when they deal with sparsely distributed tall competitors.

These results suggest that plants are more complex than previously thought. They are able to sense their environment, which allows them to "decide" the best strategy to use in order to handle the competition as efficiency as possible.

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