Scientists keep ignoring ugly plants. That’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 into the lab or out to the countryside for fieldwork, so he whiled away the hours with other projects. One day, he was sitting down to write the introduction to a paper on a rare plant, Tephroseris balbisiana, found in the Southwestern Alps. But he quickly realised that hardly any other scientists before him had published research about the plant.
Around the same time, Adamo went running in the hills surrounding Turin with his friend Stefano Mammola, an ecologist at the National Research Council of Italy. As they ran through the foliage, Adamo reflected on his problem with Mammola, and they wondered if this was a common phenomenon – do uglier and more boring plants just get studied less than their aesthetically-gifted counterparts?
To find out, the pair analysed scientific papers concerning 113 species found in the southwestern Alps – part of the mountain range that is a hotspot for plant biodiversity. Adamo and Mammola dug back through scientific writing over the last four decades, to see which species came up most often, and whether there was a relationship between the physical traits of a plant species, its rarity, and the number of scientific papers written about it.

It turned out that the species that were most at risk of extinction weren’t the most likely to be written about. Instead, appearance seems to play a big part in research interest, as they report in the journal Nature Plants. For example, plants with blue flowers were found to be studied the most – much more so than brown or green ones. Also, the taller the plant was, the more likely it was to appear in scientific publications. This disparity could be chalked up to what Mammola and Adamo deem an “aesthetic bias” in botany.
“We pretend as scientists to be the quintessential example of objectivity,” says Mammola. “But in reality, we are just as biased as the rest of the world.” Their paper is not a critique of the other botanists, says Adamo, but is an attempt to bring this prejudice to the field’s attention. “When we select target species for our studies, we have to consider diversity, and not only focus on flagship species,” he says. “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 not only means that some plant species go understudied, but may also have more serious consequences. The more a species is researched, the more awareness there is, and the more knowledge that can inform conservation plans. This means that this tendency towards superficiality could lead to some of the plainer plants disappearing forever, without anyone knowing.

Plants weren’t doing too well to begin with. Two-fifths of the world’s plant species are thought to be at risk of extinction. A 2019 global analysis found that the number of plants that have disappeared from the wild was four times the number recorded in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, and the true number is likely much higher. Plants provide humankind with food, medicine, tools, and play an irreplaceable role in keeping ecosystems chugging along, but a systemic underappreciation of plants can translate into a dearth of funding and conservation efforts – with potentially irreversible effects.
The first step to fighting this bias is identifying that it exists, says Sarah Papworth, a lecturer in conservation biology at Royal Holloway, who has studied how human biases and behaviour affect conservation decisions. “I think scientists love to think that they’re completely objective, but we are people.”

Papworth’s research has shown that this bias doesn’t stop with plants; it happens in animal research too. It’s often the celebrities of the animal kingdom – the pandas, tigers, and gorillas – that are the most studied, and therefore are on the receiving end of the most conservation efforts and funds. Consequently, Earth’s less cuddly creatures, like snakes or frogs, get left behind; one study found the average number of papers written about a threatened large mammal was 500 times that of threatened amphibians. Another study by Mammola found that 23 per cent of vertebrates found in Europe received funding under the EU’s Habitats Directive which funds conservation initiatives, in comparison with just 0.06 per cent of invertebrates. Zoos, which can protect a species from total extinction, have been shown to have a tendency to favour charismatic or cute animals. And how endangered an animal had been shown to have little bearing on whether people would choose to adopt it, whereas its perceived charisma did. Even Papworth, whose work centres on primates, fully admits to initially being drawn to her area of research because, well, she thinks monkeys are cute.

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