The technology to hear plant bubbles explode is actually quite simple. Acoustic sensors designed to detect cracks in bridges and buildings catch the ultrasonic pops. A piezoelectric pickup, the same as an electric guitar pickup, goes through an amplifier to an oscilloscope that measures the waveform of each pop. The acoustic sensor is pricey, but Duke University botanist Dan Johnson has funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build a low-cost version this summer. He'll give the embolism detector to high school students at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham.
"I think plant hydraulics will be the piece of the puzzle that tells us which species are going to live and which species are going to die with climate change," Johnson told OurAmazingPlanet. "Plant hydraulics will tell us what our future forests will look like in 50 years."
Two geologists in Arizona are also building a low-cost acoustic detector, crowd-funded at about $1,000, drawn by the age-old allure of communicating with plants.
"We became fascinated with the thought of being able to listen in to the plumbing of the saguaro cactus," said Lois Wardell, owner of Tucson-based consulting firm Arapahoe SciTech. Starting with a 3-foot-tall potted saguaro, Wardell and geophysicist Charlotte Rowe hope to distinguish between cacti drying out and those complaining about other environmental stress.
"We're working on trying to differentiate these two signals: I'm cold versus I'm really thirsty," Wardell said. "We've already managed to produce a few squawks." (Saguaros: Living Bouquets of the Sonoran Desert)
Acoustic emissions, or the sound of bursting air bubbles, could also upend assumptions about the effects of drought on plants.
In the arid Southwest, Johnson was surprised to find that the plants considered the most drought-tolerant, such as junipers, did worst at repairing embolisms. Broad-leaf plants, including rhododendrons and beaked hazels, were better at fixing the damage caused by dry pipes.
"With the incredible drought going on there right now, the species we predicted to die are exactly the opposite of what's occurring," Johnson said. "We're seeing a lot of deaths in junipers, and those are typically the most drought-resistant in that area, whereas most of the broad-leaf systems go dormant and they repair whatever embolisms occur the next spring, when there's more water."
Johnson predicts that in future severe droughts, the plants that have a harder time repairing embolisms are more likely to die. "It's the plants that can repair embolisms that are going to survive," he said. (Gallery: Plants in Danger)
Living in drought-stricken Australia, Gagliano is also excited by the possibility of decoding drought signals. "We don't know if these emissions are also providing information to neighborhoods of plants," she said. "Plants have ways of protecting themselves when they run out of water, and they are really good at sharing information about danger, even if one sharing is one that's going to die."