In the study, published in Current Biology, pea plants' roots were split between two pots that had equal average nutrient concentrations but where one pot had a constant level and the other a variable level to determine whether plants would "prefer" to grow more roots in one or the other.
The researchers predicted that plants might "gamble" on the variable pot when the average nutrient level was low and "play safe" in the constant pot when the average nutrient level was high - and this is exactly what the pea plants did.
Co-author Professor Alex Kacelnik of the University of Oxford said: "We do not yet know how the plants sense variance functions, or even if their physiology is adapted to respond to risk, but the findings lead us to look even at pea plants as dynamic strategists and to model their decision processes just as one would an intelligent agent."
Efrat Dener, now a master's student at Ben Gurion University, Israel, and the study's first author, added: "Like most people, including even experienced farmers and gardeners, I used to look at plants as passive receivers of circumstances. This illustrates how wrong that view is."