Water bear and sea star on scientists’ emoji wish list

Emoji are everywhere, and have become a surprising source of controversy in scientific circles. Neuroscientists are calling for a mouse maze emoji, while renewable energy advocates wait for their wind turbine or solar panel.

Now, scientists say that nature emoji are biased towards animals, and suggest a new sea star, water bear (tardigrade) or flatworm emoji might help raise the profile of less popular organisms.

Researchers from the Nature Research Council in Italy assessed the biodiversity of emoji, finding animals are overrepresented, while other taxonomic groups are underrepresented.

Emoji are a universal picture language for conveying ideas and emotions. Publishing in iScience the authors argue a few more plant, fungi and microorganism emoji would better represent the natural world, and help enable online communication about biodiversity conservation.

“Biodiversity conservation can progress only with broad support from society. Our call for a more comprehensive set of emoji is not intended to ‘fill all the gaps’, which would be unrealistic, but to give more visibility to underrepresented groups that may be relevant under a conservation and/or functional perspective,” researcher and author Mattia Falaschi tells Cosmos.

The study quantifies and categorises 214 emoji comprising 92 animals 🐼, 16 plants 🌱, 1 fungi 🍄and 1 microorganism 🦠emoji, comparing the representation of different organisms to their diversity in nature.

The authors found emoji representation is biased towards animals, reflecting societal biases “in line with current societal awareness of biodiversity, which tends to prioritise animals over other taxa”.

Some organisms are represented multiple times, particularly pets (dogs, cats, rabbits) and farm animals (pigs, cows, sheep, chickens).

Plants, fungi and microorganisms are underrepresented. 

Authors Falaschi and Stefano Mammola say moulds, mosses or lichens would also make good additions. They note that while the article was under review, a new edible brown mushroom – likely a Boletus edulis or similar – was added in the most recent update.

Even animal emoji are heavily biased towards vertebrates (making up 76%) compared to 16% arthropods 🦞. Cnidarians (a category of water animals including corals, jellies and sea anemones) comprised 🪸 2%, and annelids (segmented worms)🪱 1%.

Meanwhile there are no emoji for fans of platyhelminthes (flatworms) and nematodes (roundworms).

No nemotodes are slated for 2025, although there is a new plant on the list – the dead or leafless tree.

“The leafless tree emoji can be a good candidate for improving biodiversity communication. It can be used, for instance, to represent drought, a phenomenon that is becoming more frequent in some areas due to climate change,” Falaschi says.

The researchers would like to see more diverse and inclusive emoji that better represent life on Earth 🌏.

“This simplicity and immediacy can serve as a valuable tool for documenting the ongoing sixth mass extinction of biodiversity, where species are disappearing not only from the physical world but also from our cultures and collective memory,” the paper says.

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