Scientists have been documenting plant species for centuries to help us understand and protect the amazing diversity of our world’s plants. But according to new research, many people haven’t been photographed in their natural environment — and that’s a problem.
Researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney and the Australian Institute of Botanical Sciences, part of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, scanned 33 major online databases of plant imagery to examine the photographic record of Australian plant species. Results published in new botanist, revealed that out of 21,077 species of native Australian vascular plants, approximately 20 per cent lacked a verifiable picture.
Australia is one of the richest areas in the world for native species, says lead author of the study and University of New South Wales PhD student Thomas Missaglio.
“It was amazing to see how many plant species have only line drawings, illustrations, paintings, or even no media at all,” says Missaglio.
Dr Herve Souquet, co-author of the study and senior research scientist at the Australian Institute of Plant Sciences, works on the National Herbarium in New South Wales.
“All plant species ultimately rely on specimens in herb collections for identification,” says Dr. Suquet. “However, even in this digital age where most weed specimens have been scanned and accessible on the web, images of live plants in the wild remain in great demand.”
The study’s senior author from University of New South Wales Associate Professor of Science Will Cornwell says the lack of detailed imagery can have real consequences. Many species of plants that are difficult to recognize in the wild may become extinct if scientists cannot properly identify them with the help of photographs.
“We assumed that every plant species was simply depicted by someone, somewhere, throughout history. But it turns out that’s not the case,” says Professor A/Professor. Cornwell.
“This is where citizen scientists can come in and help us fill that gap with their images.”
Gaps in the photographic record
The images can help botanists and taxonomists working with plant samples by preserving in their samples characteristics such as flower color that get lost over time. They can also show additional features, such as the orientation of leaves or the appearance of bark, and add environmental context.
“Having a comprehensive image collection helps us be confident about our identities,” says Missaglio. “Particularly when it would be practically difficult to collect and preserve the whole plant, photographs complement the physical voucher by showing the type of soil and habitat in which it grows and what other species grow alongside it.”
But it turns out that not all groups of plants are depicted equally. Just as some animals receive less attention than others, there may also be a bias against less attractive plants.
The study found that the most well-photographed groups of plants tended to be shrubs or trees with more obvious or striking features, such as colorful flowers. Banksia, for example, is one of only two Australian plant genera with more than 40 species with a complete photographic record. Meanwhile, the family with the largest picture deficit was the Poaceae—commonly known as grasses—with 343 species not pictured.
“We’ve noticed charisma deficits, so the types that are hard to see are the ones that are missing,” says Missaglio. “They may have innocuous, pale-looking flowers or be smaller and weeds, plants and weeds are hard to spot.”
Geography also influenced the photographic record. While most species in the southeastern states of Australia have comprehensive records, Western Australia had the largest void, with 52 percent of all non-pictured species found there.
“The main hotspots for unphotographed Australian flora are areas of high plant diversity, but the environments are rugged and often difficult to access, particularly by road,” says Missaglio. “But it does mean that there is an exciting opportunity to visit these sites because we might capture something that hasn’t been photographed before.”
Activate citizen scientists snaps
It is one thing to have comprehensive photographic records of professional scientists to use for identification evidence. But when the plant world is threatened by multiple fronts, including habitat cleansing and climate change, images can help engage the public with plant science.
“People can engage with plants, empathize with them, and get more excited about them through photographs, which is vital when our natural environments are more in danger than ever,” says Missaglio.
“Because digital photography is now so accessible, anyone can also help make a meaningful contribution to science with the camera in their pocket.”
Using a platform like iNaturalist, passionate citizen scientists can have their snapshots defined by experts and share the data with aggregators such as Atlas of Living Australia and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility for use in research and conservation.
“Since April last year, we’ve identified close to 10 percent of those species that weren’t previously photographed thanks to members of the public who have uploaded their photos and experts who have kindly identified them,” says Missaglio. “There could be a lot more in personal groups or behind paywalls just waiting to be shared.”
The researchers recommend the development of a standardized system for scientific depictions of plants, starting with a requirement in the International Code of Plant Nomenclature to include at least one field photograph wherever possible in descriptions of new species. They also suggest that all descriptions of new species be published as open access in searchable databases with a Creative Commons license to further use them.
“We also suspect there are more images out there, but they’re hidden away on social media or behind science-driven walls that can’t be accessed, discovered, or searched,” says Missaglio.
“Of the species that have images, many have one. We not only want to capture those species that are not represented but also continue to build the photographic record of all species.
“Doing so will help us identify, monitor and conserve our native species for future generations.”