Trees have been seen to go to sleep and relax their branches for certain periods of time.
Experts from Austria, Finland and Hungary are employing laser scanners to calculate the day-night rhythms of trees. As strange as it may seem, trees do go to sleep and need periodic rest time.
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It is a rule of thumb that if it is living, it will sleep however briefly that might be so. Plant species too follow this rule. Many flowers open their petals in the morning to let the sunlight in. There are trees, the leaves of which close and seem to fold in on themselves sometime in the night.
It’s been a long time since such studies have been taking place. Yet up until now such studies were being done on potted plants. For the first time, trees that are out in the open have entered the equation.
Trees lower their branches at night. The position of their leaves and shoots seem to undergo changes in the starry night. These changes are not radical in any way.
They go to the amount of 10 cm for trees with heights reaching 5 meters. Yet these changes are in accordance with certain rules and regulations and not haphazard in nature.
“Our results show that the whole tree droops during night which can be seen as position change in leaves and branches”, says Eetu Puttonen (Finnish Geospatial Research Institute),
“The changes are not too large, only up to 10 cm for trees with a height of about 5 meters, but they were systematic and well within the accuracy of our instruments.”
In order to obliterate any weather and locality effects, the experiment was done twice with two different trees. The first was a tree in Finland and the second was a tree in Austria.
There were no signs of any wind and neither was there any condensation in the air. The leaves and shoots tended to droop steadily and reached their lowest before sunrise. After the sun rose in the sky, the trees quickly picked up their pace and returned to normality.
What remains unclear is whether the trees were roused from their “sleep” by the sun’s rays or this was just an internal mechanism. This question will ultimately be answered by the field of chronobiology.
The genetic matrix of the tree will also need going into. Plant activities are connected with the water homeostasis of the cells. This in turn is influenced by light and photosynthesis.
Yet the issue remains that since light is needed to know about the biorhythms of plants, this light interferes with their daily cycles and thus prevents a proper reading of their sleep trends.
“On molecular level, the scientific field of chronobiology is well developed, and especially the genetic background of the daily periodicity of plants has been studied extensively”, explains András Zlinszky (Centre for Ecological Research, Hungarian Academy of Sciences).
“Plant movement is always closely connected with the water balance of individual cells, which is affected by the availability of light through photosynthesis. But changes in the shape of the plant are difficult to document even for small herbs as classical photography uses visible light that interferes with the sleep movement.”
In case of laser scanners, the interference is very little. Infrared light is used. Laser scanners can ultimately provide vital clues about plants and their sleep cycles and it is science and mankind that will benefit from this research.
“We believe that laser scanning point clouds will allow us to develop a deeper understanding ofplant sleep patterns and to extend our measurement scope from individual plants to larger areas, like orchards or forest plots,” says Norbert Pfeifer (TU Wien).
“The next step will be collecting tree point clouds repeatedly and comparing the results to water use measurements during day and night”, says Eetu Puttonen. “This will give us a better understanding of the trees’ daily tree water use and their influence on the local or regional climate.”
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This study has been published in an open access article in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.