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Alien trees just might look black

Univ. of St. Andrews photoillustration

On a world that spins around two dim suns, the vegetation may well look black to human eyes.

Researchers suggest that vegetation on an alien planet like Tatooine in "Star Wars" might well look black or gray to human eyes. But they probably wouldn’t seem devoid of color to the eyes of the aliens — assuming they have eyes, that is.

The conjecture comes from a paper presented by the University of St. Andrews' Jack O'Malley-James at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting in Wales. O'Malley-James is working on a Ph.D. project to assess the potential for photosynthetic life in multiple-star systems with different combinations of sunlike stars and red dwarfs.


On Earth, the leaves of plants generally look green because two types of chlorophyll absorb the reddish and bluish wavelengths in the visible-light spectrum. Those red and blue wavelengths drive the photosynthetic process by which plants convert the sun's energy into chemical energy. In contrast, the green wavelengths are reflected into the RGB optical sensors known as our eyes.

Scientists surmise that the birds and bugs may see plants quite differently, with greater sensitivity to different shades of green and the ability to sense ultraviolet wavelengths as well.

O'Malley-James suggests that in different corners of our galaxy, plants could evolve to take advantage of different combinations of wavelengths, depending on the light coming from their parent sun ... or suns. The possibilities become particularly intriguing for a planet in a multiple-star system — like Tatooine, Luke Skywalker's fictional home planet in the "Star Wars" movie saga.

J. O'Malley-James / Univ. of St. Andrews

On planets orbiting red-dwarf stars, the vegetation may have more photosynthetic pigments in order to make use of a fuller range of wavelengths, giving them a "black" appearance. Here are some earthly examples of dark plants and flowers.

"If a planet were found in a system with two or more stars, there would potentially be multiple sources of energy available to drive photosynthesis. The temperature of a star determines its color and, hence, the color of light used for photosynthesis. Depending on the colors of their starlight, plants would evolve very differently,"  he said in a news release.

Statistics show that more than 25 percent of sunlike stars and 50 percent of the red dwarfs in our galaxy are found in multiple-star systems. Armed with such statistics, O'Malley-James and his colleagues ran computer simulations to determine the optimal strategy for photosynthesis over a wide spectrum (heh, heh) of planetary alignments.

“Our simulations suggest that planets in multi-star systems may host exotic forms of the more familiar plants we see on Earth," O'Malley-James reported. "Plants with dim red dwarf suns for example, may appear black to our eyes, absorbing across the entire visible wavelength range in order to use as much of the available light as possible. They may also be able to use infrared or ultraviolet radiation to drive photosynthesis. For planets orbiting two stars like our own, harmful radiation from intense stellar flares could lead to plants that develop their own UV-blocking sunscreens, or photosynthesizing microorganisms that can move in response to a sudden flare."

But even if the plants reflected none of the visible-light wavelengths, extraterrestrial gardeners might well have their own special appreciation for an ultraviolet bloom, or leaves that are variegated in the thermal infrared.

I know it sounds like a flight of fancy, but this is just the kind of flight I enjoy the most. The subject reminds me of the scene from "Battlestar Galactica" where Brother Cavil complains about the "ridiculous gelatinous orbs" in his head. "I want to see gamma rays!" he shouts. "I want to hear X-rays!" Which new senses do you think the aliens might have ... and which do you wish you could have? Feel free to weigh in with your own conjectures in the comment section below.

More about alien perspectives:


O'Malley-James' supervisors on the Ph.D. project include Jane Greaves of the University of St. Andrews, John Raven of the University of Dundee and Charles Cockell of The Open University.

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