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Faculty presents research on plant ecology and communication methods

| Monday, January 22, 2018

As part of the faculty colloquium, Cassie Majetic, associate professor of biology, and Aaron Moe, assistant professor of English, presented their research.

Majetic discussed her research in plant evolutionary ecology, and specifically on how the odor given off by different plants attracts pollinators and how a plant’s environment shapes its evolutionary trajectory over time.

“I’m particularly interested in this [evolution] as mediated by pollinators for plant reproduction purposes,” Majetic said. “The main role, the main type of [reproductive] assistant [plants] have are insects and small mammals and other types of organisms like birds, that come to a plant based on information the plant is providing and then pick up pollen. … What’s important is that the plant provides the right type of information to those potential pollinators so that they show up in the first place and then find a suitable mate.”

Majetic said that while there are multiple ways for plants to give off that information, she has focused on floral odor. She said historically, scientists have focused on visual cues — such as color — but plants do not necessarily use visuals as much as humans do. Instead, Majetic said the plants give off an odor, which pollinators detect.

“That’s a piece of information that the insect uses and decodes,” she said. “They come and visit the plant. Plants that have the preferred characteristic are more likely to reproduce, so that when we get to the next generation, I’ve got more of the smelly [plants.] Over time, that will lead to larger scale changes of patterns, and that leads to the patterns of evolution that we see historically.”

Moe’s research focuses on a book by Jody Gladding, called “Translations from Bark Beetle,” and the book’s relationship to biosemiotics.

“Semiosis precedes consciousness,” Moe said. “That is…there’s a knowing but not knowing that you know. And this semiosis has its own agency apart from human consciousness.”

Moe said the “biosemiotic project” focuses on the fact that all life is characterized by communication, which “places humans back in nature as part of the richly communicative global web teeming with meanings.”

“But, to foreshadow,” Moe said, “we forget, or at least I forget, that something as tiny as a bark beetle also has its own vastness of fractal membranes. It too, on a different scale, is a super-organism, teeming with biosemiotic activity in its own cells, as well as in the coexisting swarm of microbial activity of its own gut.”

Moe said he read Gladding’s book after spending numerous summers in Colorado. Her book incorporates the physicality of bark beetles from their effect on trees and translates it into human language. Moe said Gladding took the grooves that these beetles left on trees and interpreted these markings as poems themselves.

“Though the grooves are not part of the beetle’s semiosis, the vibrations caused by gnawing through the wood are,” Moe said. “They respond to each other’s vibrations, seeing those vibrations as having semiotic implications. In other words, the poem is not there. The poem is gone, and we just have this trace. … And if we think about semiosis as taking place at the membrane level, these beetles participate in an active awareness and interpretation of what those membranes of the outer surface of their bodies feel.

“We cannot pretend to articulate the substance of the knowing of the beetle, but, to echo Pierce and Wheeler, an abductive reasoning is at work. The beetles respond to the vibrations of another beetle, and “know” that another beetle is gnawing on either side, and they don’t cross paths.”

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About Nicole Caratas

Nicole is a senior English Writing and Humanistic Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. Now a senior news writer, she previously served as the Saint Mary's Editor. She was born in real Chicago but grew up in the suburbs, and she currently lives in Opus Hall.

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