Scientists aren’t immune to the lure of beauty, it seems, tending to shun plants that are rare and have ecological significance if they’re not attractive or readily accessible.
“Bright colours, easy to reach plants were selected more often than those that were dingy, brown or inconspicuous,” says Kingsley Dixon from Curtin University, Western Australia, co-author of a study published in the journal Nature Plants.
“More worrying was that scientists working to save rare plants showed a bias towards plants with attractive flowers, missing ‘dull coloured’ species of equal or greater rarity. Such an aesthetic bias means that funding and research emphasis may miss golden opportunities for remarkable discoveries.”
The researchers discovered a clear study preference for plants with blue flowers, such as the stunning Gentiana ligustica, followed by white, red/pink and yellow flowers.
They note that “charismatic organisms” often get more scientific attention, but it has proven difficult to measure such favouritism.
To quantify it, lead author Martino Adama, from Italy’s University of Toronto, and colleagues chose a distinct niche of plant research over the past 45 years in the country’s Southwestern Alps – a major biodiversity hotspot.
They analysed 280 papers representing 113 species typical of the region and correlated the number of publications with plant traits related to ecology, physical characteristics and rarity.
Surprisingly, results showed that native plants with a narrow range, or those listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, weren’t important research drivers. Exploring further, the team modelled which traits were influencing the body of work, including colour, range size, flower size and stem size.
After their colour, flowers with higher stems – making them easier to pick – seemed to attract more attention. More conspicuous small-flowered groups of plants that create an “inflorescence effect”, such as Gymnadenia corneliana and Saxifraga florulenta, were more popular than plants with single large flowers.
And plants with larger ranges attracted more interest, possibly because they are easier to find, suggest Adama and colleagues – yet these are less vulnerable to extinction.
This “disparity in scientific attention towards certain species can become a concern in conservation biology, where it is paramount to ensure a ‘level playing field’ in selecting conservation priorities”.
Plants already take a back seat to animals in conservation research, they add, despite their indispensable services to us and the planet. “Throughout human history, plants have played the role of silent partner in the growth of virtually every civilisation.”
“Given their global diversity and ecological importance, plants should be prominent in conservation biology’s effort to curb species loss under mounting anthropogenic pressures.”
Noting that access and sampling biases have previously been highlighted, they say subjective biases tend to be overlooked, and call for attention to aesthetic prejudice in future research design.
They give US ecologists the last word, “who stated: ‘Although plants stand still and wait to be counted, they sometimes hide.’ Often in plain view, we would add.”
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Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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