Electric ecology: we’re discovering how animals and plants use electricity in ingenious ways

Sam England, Author provided

When you hear the word “electricity”, thoughts of power lines or household appliances are probably conjured up in your mind. But electricity is not just a modern human phenomenon – it was around long before us and, in fact, long before planet Earth.

“Electricity” simply refers to the interactions between any electrically charged objects, not just human-made ones, and these interactions are commonly found in the natural world among many animals and plants.

At the small scale, these electrical interactions involve negatively charged electrons and/or positively charged protons – opposite charges attract and like charges repel. But each of these tiny particle interactions can add up, and contribute to creating effects which we can see at the much larger ecological scale in the interactions between animals, plants and their environment.

In a lot of cases, what we are seeing in the natural world is static electricity, which is what you experience when you rub a balloon on your hair and it becomes statically charged. The exact same thing can happen to animals.

As animals run, crawl or fly, their body parts rub on objects in their environment – or even just the air – and this charges them up, just like the balloon rubbing on your head. The amount of charge animals can build up this way is surprisingly high, with many different species accumulating charges that when measured as voltages can be in the region of many hundreds or thousands of volts. That’s more than the voltage that comes out of your plug sockets at home.

We wanted to review whether this static electricity helps animals live their lives. The answer is a resounding “yes”.

Because statically charged objects can attract and repel each other, many different kinds of ecological interactions are affected by them.

The static charges on the feet of geckos help them stick to surfaces, so they can wall-run with ease.

Spiders also love a bit of static electricity; not only are their webs electrostatically attracted towards charged flying insects, but they also use electricity to fly. Several species of spider exhibit a behaviour called “ballooning”, where they let out strands of silk that lift them up into the air like a balloon, and carry them away to disperse and find new homes. It turns out that static electricity in the atmosphere, the type that causes thunderstorms in extreme cases, actually helps spiders in their aviation efforts by statically attracting the charged silk strands upwards into the atmosphere.

It is not just animals that take advantage of these invisible electric forces either. Pollen has actually been shown to jump from flower to insect or bird pollinator without any contact between the two. The static charges of insects and hummingbirds are strong enough to pull pollen through the air, even over several centimetres in some cases.

Hummingbird feeding from red flower
Hummingbirds attract pollen thanks to static electric charges.
Jeffrey Eisen / Pexels, CC BY

Many animals can detect electricity too

Because naturally occurring electricity permeates the environment and lives of so many organisms – and has clear ecological value – it seemed likely that some animals may have evolved sensory systems to detect it.

Recent research has discovered that many animal species can indeed detect electricity when it is relevant to their natural ecology. We call this “aerial electroreception”.

Bumblebees and hoverflies can sense the electricity that exists around flowers, and use this information to learn which flowers might have the best nectar stocks. Similarly, part of the “waggle dance”, a series of movements performed by honeybees to communicate to each other where to forage, is also transmitted electrically by the detection of the statically charged bee body shaking around.

It has also now been shown that those flying spiders I mentioned earlier can detect how strong the local atmospheric electrical conditions are, and can then use this information to decide when to attempt take-off.

We are only just beginning to uncover the multiple strands of this newly discovered sense. There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, more species capable of aerial electroreception, and in many more ecological contexts; perhaps a prey animal can detect its approaching predators by the static charge on the predator, or vice versa. There is so much more to be discovered.

Possibly even more important though, is to assess to impact of human activity on this electric ecology.

The magnitude of many human-made electricity sources are comparable, if not greater, than the natural sources of electricity. We might be swamping the electrical senses of key pollinators or interfering with the natural world in other, as yet unknown, ways. While the discovery of this electrical sense is incredibly exciting, it also highlights how little we really know about the ways in which we could be hurting and disturbing the natural world.


This blog is by Sam England, PhD researcher in Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sam England

Festival of Nature 2015: Roots and soil erosion

Seed lucky dips, 3D-printer pens, and Bill Oddie with a puffin. All in a day’s volunteering for the Festival of Nature 2015!


Bristol’s Festival of Nature is the UK’s largest celebration of the natural world, and has recently spread over into Bath too. This year, I helped Kevin Smyth and Tom Denbigh from the School of Biological Sciences. Their work in Prof Claire Grierson’s lab group looks at plant roots, especially how important they are at preventing soil erosion. This work is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

We also had some smaller plants growing in transparent media. The bean on the left
has thicker roots and very few side shoots, whereas the tomato on the right has much
thinner roots but more side shoots.

The stall really helped reveal what’s going under our feet in any park, garden or green space. Like the well-known tip of the iceberg, there’s often a lot going on below the surface! For the sunflowers in this rhizotron, the roots were taller than many of the kids we saw!

We also had some smaller plants growing in transparent media (see image above). The bean on the left has thicker roots and very few side shoots, whereas the tomato on the right has much thinner roots but more side shoots.

If you want evidence that plants do help combat soil erosion, just look at the pictures! Soil without plants (right) can be really crumbly and doesn’t hold itself together well. A slight slope and some rainfall would wash it away easily, leading to soil erosion. Soil and plants is a far more effective solution, holding itself together with ease – even without a supporting pot. One of so many reasons why we need more plants around!


Seed lucky dip at the Festival of Nature.

Are you inspired to lend a hand with increasing the plant numbers in your area? Perhaps you are curious about the medical-looking pots are behind the bowl of soil in the image above. We can help with both – it’s a seed lucky dip!

In the lab, Kevin’s group studies roots to try and understand why plants are so effective at preventing soil erosion. To do this, they can make mutations in some plants and see if it changes the roots. The mutant plants of choice are Arabadopsis, weedy relatives of the mustard plant and perhaps the most studied plant in the world.

Looking down the microscope at the samples, you could work out which plant was the “bald” mutant (below left) and which was the “werewolf” (below right) compared to the normal roots in the middle. If we understand how the plant’s genetics affects their roots, perhaps in the future we could grow plants that are better at holding the soil together.

Looking down the microscope at the samples, you could work out which plant
was the “bald” mutant (left) and which was the “werewolf” (right) compared
to the normal roots in the middle.
A 3D printing pen was used to create root structures at the Festival of Nature.

There was art as well as science! You could draw your own root structure on a plant template, then one of us lucky volunteers got to use this amazing 3D-printing pen to made a “real” version of it. You could either take it home or donate it to our ever-growing wall…

As a bonus, my lunch break timed nicely with Bill Oddie’s talk so I got to hear him tell a bunch of amusing anecdotes about his young life and how that led to a passion for wildlife. One of these apparently required a stuffed puffin!

Bill Oddie at the Festival of Nature.

There was plenty to do at the stall, in the tent and throughout the festival. I was genuinely impressed at the range of activities and how interesting they were, something for all ages and experiences. I had a great time helping out and look forward to next year’s Festival of Nature already! It also fit in as a pretty wild indeed #30dayswild.
This blog is written by Emily Coyte, and has been reproduced from her blog Memetic Drift.  Emily is an Assistant Teacher in the School of Biochemistry at the University of Bristol.

Emily Coyte


Sir David Attenborough declares new Life Sciences Building open

Research came to a standstill on Monday 6 October in Bristol’s new £56 million Life Sciences building as Sir David Attenborough, hero of biologists and nature lovers everywhere, took to the microphone at the opening ceremony.
His speech was, frankly, inspirational. He talked about the problems that humanity has caused, but insisted that they won’t be solved unless we can better understand how the world works. He reminded us that knowledge of life sciences isn’t just vital for our future, but that understanding natural processes enhances them and brings joy to our lives.


“There can be no more important area of knowledge for humanity at the moment than the life sciences. It has never been more important, ever, that human beings should understand the workings of the world”.  Sir David Attenborough.

The Life Sciences building is set up to do just that. The meeting areas and large research offices and laboratories mean that scientists are already communicating with colleagues with other research interests far more often than they did in the long corridors of the old Biological Sciences building. I think this will prove essential for developing a deeper understanding of how the world works, which should help us to solve some of the problems we face.

Of course, undergraduate students are an important part of the University and as such their new teaching lab is amazing. It can hold 200 students, either as one large class or broken down into separate areas. Screens connected to cameras allow the demonstration of fiddly techniques or show what sort of result the students can expect to see from their experiments. Also, each group has a tablet computer in their work area to augment their learning. Almost makes me wish I were an undergraduate again, until I remember the exams!


As a plant scientist, I can’t talk about the new building without getting excited about the GroDome, the hi-tech glasshouse on the top of the Life Sciences building. It can recreate the perfect conditions for plants or experiments, with automated temperature controls and lighting to give researchers much more control. Each of the six chambers can be regulated separately, and negative pressure systems on the doors to each chamber prevent plant material or diseases from accidentally being spread to other parts of the building.

We were pleased to learn that the building has been rated Excellent in the BREEAM sustainable buildings assessment. Rainwater collected from the roof is used to flush the toilets, heat from the laboratory ventilation systems is reused and the building is air conditioned using chilled beams, with cold air passively sinking from the beam to cool the rooms below.

One of my favourite features of the building is the green wall. Eleven species of plants are included in the four storey high vertical garden, apparently arranged to depict a cell dividing when they flower. The green wall houses bird and bat boxes to promote biodiversity, while also providing an attractive front to the building from St. Michael’s Hill. As Sir David said, it’s important for us to engage with the public, and I think that a building that outwardly tells the world that we are keen to encourage biodiversity is a great starting point.

“It’s places like this which will spread the understanding to the community at large, the world at large, of how important it is for us to do something”.  Sir David Attenborough.

The new facilities of the Life Sciences building are world-class, so I believe we’ll be able to help to fulfill Sir David’s dream of using a deeper understanding of biology to solve the big problems we face today. The building promotes collaboration and public engagement, making it a fantastic place to work and conduct research.

Check out the #BristolLifeSciences TagBoard for many more photos of the opening ceremony and the Life Sciences building.

This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol



Sarah Jose