Scientists continue to ignore ugly plants. It’s a big problem
During Italy’s strict lockdown in March 2020, Martino Adamo had time to kill. A plant researcher at the University of Turin, Adamo couldn’t go to the lab or the countryside for fieldwork, so he spent the hours with other projects. One day he was sitting writing the introduction to an article on a rare plant, Tephroseris balbisiana, found in the southwestern Alps. But he soon realized that hardly any other scientist before him had published research on the plant.
Around the same time, Adamo was running in the hills surrounding Turin with his friend Stefano Mammola, an ecologist at the National Research Council of Italy. As they roamed the foliage, Adamo pondered his problem with Mammola, and they wondered if this was a common occurrence – are the ugliest, boring plants just less studied than their counterparts? gifted in aesthetics?
To find out, the duo analyzed scientific papers relating to 113 species found in the southwestern Alps – part of the mountain range that is a hotspot for plant biodiversity. Adamo and Mammola have dug into scientific writings over the past four decades, to see which species have appeared most often, and whether there is a relationship between a plant species’ physical traits, its rarity, and the number of ‘scientific articles written about it. .
It turned out that the most endangered species were not the most likely to be described. Instead, appearance seems to play a big role in the interests of research, as they report in the journal. Natural plants. For example, plants with blue flowers have been the most studied – much more than brown or green plants. In addition, the taller the plant, the more likely it was to appear in scientific publications. This disparity could be attributed to what Mammola and Adamo consider to be an “aesthetic bias” in botany.
“We claim as scientists to be the prime example of objectivity,” says Mammola. “But in reality, we are just as biased as the rest of the world.” Their article is not a review of other botanists, says Adamo, but an attempt to bring this prejudice to the attention of the field. “When we select target species for our studies, we need to consider diversity, not just focus on flagship species,” he says. “The flagship species are beautiful and we can communicate with them to the general public, but other plants, if you can communicate in the right way, they can be beautiful too.”
This penchant for the pretty means not only that some plant species are under-studied, but can also have more serious consequences. The more a species is researched, the more awareness and knowledge can inform conservation plans. This means that this tendency towards superficiality could lead to the permanent demise of some of the simpler plants, without anyone knowing about it.
The plants weren’t doing very well at first. It is believed that two-fifths of the world’s plant species are threatened with extinction. A 2019 global analysis found that the number of plants that have gone extinct was four times the number recorded in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, and the actual number is likely many. higher. Plants provide mankind with food, medicine, tools and play an irreplaceable role in maintaining ecosystems, but a systemic undervaluation of plants can result in a shortage of funding and conservation efforts – with potentially irreversible effects.
The first step in combating this bias is to identify its existence, says Sarah Papworth, lecturer in conservation biology at Royal Holloway, who has studied how human biases and behavior affect conservation decisions. “I think scientists love to think of themselves as completely objective, but we are people.”
Papworth’s research has shown that this bias does not end with plants; this also happens in animal research. It is often the celebrities of the animal kingdom – pandas, tigers and gorillas – who are the most studied, and therefore who receive the most effort and funds for conservation. As a result, the less cuddly creatures of Earth, such as snakes or frogs, are left behind; one study found that the average number of articles written about a large threatened mammal was 500 times that of threatened amphibians. Another study by Mammola found that 23% of vertebrates found in Europe received funding under the EU’s Habitats Directive which funds conservation initiatives, compared to just 0.06% of invertebrates. Zoos, which can protect a species from total extinction, tend to favor charismatic or cute animals. And how little an endangered animal has been shown to have had little bearing on the choice of adopting it, contrary to its perceived charisma. Even Papworth, whose work focuses on primates, fully admits that she was initially drawn to her area of research because, well, she thinks apes are cute.