Scientists are more likely to study bold and beautiful blooms, but ugly flowers matter too


Myricaria germanica is a rare and endangered species hit hard by climate change, but little research is undertaken to help save it.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

Kingsley Dixon, Curtin UniversityWe all love gardens with beautiful flowers and leafy plants, choosing colourful species to plant in and around our homes. Plant scientists, however, may have fallen for the same trick in what they choose to research.

Our research, published today in Nature Plants, found there’s a clear bias among scientists toward visually striking plants. This means they’re more likely chosen for scientific study and conservation efforts, regardless of their ecological or evolutionary significance.

To our surprise, colour played a major role skewing researcher bias. White, red and pink flowers were more likely to feature in research literature than those with dull, or green and brown flowers. Blue plants — the rarest colour in nature — received most research attention.

But does this bias matter? Plants worldwide are facing mass extinction due to environmental threats such as climate change. Now, more than ever, the human-induced tide of extinction means scientists need to be more fair-handed in ensuring all species have a fighting chance at survival.

Hidden plants in carpets of wildflowers

I was part of an international team that sifted through 280 research papers from 1975 to 2020, and analysed 113 plant species found in the southwestern Alps in Europe.

The Alps is a global biodiversity hotspot and the subject of almost 200 years of intensive plant science. But climate change is now creating hotter conditions, threatening many of its rarest species.

White flower with mountains in background
Edelweiss is a charismatic plant of the Alps that heralds spring.
Shutterstock

Carpeted in snow for much of the year, the brief yet explosive flowering of Europe’s alpine flora following the thaw is a joy to behold. Who was not bewitched when Julie Andrews danced in an alpine meadow in its full spring wildflower livery in The Sound of Music? Or when she sung “edelweiss”, one of the charismatic plants of the Alps that heralds spring?




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Hidden in these carpets of bright blue gentians and Delphiniums, vibrant daisies and orchids, are tiny or dull plants. This includes small sedges (Carex species), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla species) or the snake lily (Fritillaria) with its sanguine drooping flowers on thin stems.

Many of these “uncharismatic plants” are also rare or important ecological species, yet garner little attention from scientists and the public.

Close-up of a blue flower
Bellflowers (Campanula) are conspicuous and prominent in the Alps.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

The plants scientists prefer

The study asked if scientists were impartial to good-looking plants. We tested whether there was a relationship between research focus on plant species and characteristics, such as the colour, shape and prominence of species.

Along with a bias towards colourful flowers, we found accessible and conspicuous flowers were among those most studied (outside of plants required for human food or medicine).

Blue flowers
Bold and beautiful flowers in alpine meadows win scientific attention.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

This includes tall, prominent Delphinium and larkspurs, both well-known garden delights with well-displayed, vibrant flowers that often verge on fluorescent. Stem height also contributed to how readily a plant was researched, as it determines a plant’s ability to stand out among others. This includes tall bellflowers (Campanula species) and orchids.

But interestingly, a plant’s rarity didn’t significantly influence research attention. Charismatic orchids, for example, figured prominently despite rarer, less obvious species growing nearby, such as tiny sedges (Cypreaceae) and grass species.

The consequences of plant favouritism

This bias may steer conservation efforts away from plants that, while less visually pleasing, are more important to the health of the overall ecosystem or in need of urgent conservation.

In this time of urgent conservation, controlling our bias in plant science is critical. While the world list of threatened species (the IUCN RED List) should be the basis for guiding global plant conservation, the practice is often far from science based.

Mat rush with brown flowers
Mat rushes are home for rare native sun moths.
Shutterstock

We often don’t know how important a species is until it’s thoroughly researched, and losing an unnoticed species could mean the loss of a keystone plant.

In Australia, for example, milkweeds (Asclepiadaceae) are an important food source for butterflies and caterpillars, while grassy mat rushes (dull-flowered Lomandra species) are now known to be the home for rare native sun moths. From habitats to food, these plants provide foundational ecological services, yet many milkweed and mat rush species are rare, and largely neglected in conservation research.




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Likewise, we can count on one hand the number of scientists who work on creepy fungal-like organisms called “slime molds”, compared to the platoons of scientists who work on the most glamorous of plants: the orchids.

Yet, slime molds, with their extraordinary ability to live without cell walls and to float their nuclei in a pulsating jelly of cytoplasm, could hold keys to all sorts of remarkable scientific discoveries.

Yellow slime on tree trunk
Slime molds could hold the key to many scientific discoveries, but the organisms are understudied.
Shutterstock

We need to love our boring plants

Our study shows the need to take aesthetic biases more explicitly into consideration in science and in the choice of species studied, for the best conservation and ecological outcomes.

While our study didn’t venture into Australia, the principle holds true: we should be more vigilant in all parts of the conservation process, from the science to listing species for protection under the law. (Attractiveness bias may affect public interest here, too.)

So next time you go for a bushwalk, think about the plants you may have trodden on because they weren’t worth a second glance. They may be important to native insects, improve soil health or critical for a healthy bushland.




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The Conversation


Kingsley Dixon, John Curtin Distinguished Professor, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Are toxic algal blooms the new normal for Australia’s major rivers?


Darren Baldwin, La Trobe University

For much of this year, up to 1,700 kilometres of the Murray River has been hit by a serious outbreak of potentially toxic blue-green algae, which has flourished in the hotter-than-average conditions. After three months, the river is now recovering with the arrival of wet weather. But we are unlikely to have seen the last of these poisonous microbes.

Large blue-green algal blooms are a relatively new phenomenon in inland waterways. In 1991 an algal bloom affected more than 1,000 km of the Darling River, the first time such an event had been reported in an Australian river, and one of the few times internationally. It was an environmental disaster, killing livestock and striking a telling blow against Australia’s reputation as a clean, green farming nation.

The response was decisive: a state of emergency was declared, and the bloom ultimately gave rise to significant investment by state and federal governments into freshwater research, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Why no emergency now?

Fast forward two and a half decades to the latest bloom afflicting the Murray River, one of Australia’s most socially, economically and culturally significant waterways. The past decade has seen four similar blooms on the Murray River: in 2007, 2009, 2010 and now. Yes, they have garnered press attention, but there has not been the same call to arms that we saw when the Darling River was struck in 1991.

It is almost as if such significant environmental events are now simply seen as the new normal. Why the apparent complacency?

The 2007, 2009 and 2010 algal blooms on the Murray River all happened during the Millennium Drought, and hence were probably ascribed to an aberration in the weather. In reality, the situation may have more to do with how we manage water in Australia – particularly during periods of scarcity, such as the one we may well be entering now.

Those three earlier events all started in Lake Hume, a large reservoir in the Murray River’s upper reaches, originally created in the 1930s to help “drought-proof” Australia. All of the blooms began after the water level was drawn down to below 10% of the lake’s capacity. At these low levels, disturbances (such as when transferring water between the Snowy River and Murray River systems) can easily lead to the mixing of warm surface waters (ideal for bloom formation) with nutrient-rich water at the bottom of the reservoir (ideal for feeding the bloom).

The resulting blooms were then released downstream into the Murray River by managed water releases from Lake Hume. The blooms most likely reformed in other constructed water bodies downstream – most notably Lake Mulwala, a shallow reservoir about 250 km along the river from Lake Hume.

Lake Mulwala’s principal purpose is to create hydraulic pressure to allow irrigation water to be diverted into farmland in southern New South Wales and northern Victoria. As a result, its shallow depth and mostly still waters make it an ideal incubator for blue-green algae.

The climate factor

This year’s algal bloom on the Murray River is different. The main blue-green alga in the current outbreak, Chrysosporium ovalisporum, has previously been reported in the river, but generally in very low numbers. It has never before formed a bloom in the Murray River since monitoring began in 1978. But crucially, this species flourishes in very warm temperatures; overseas blooms of this species have occurred when water temperatures reach 26℃.

The other difference between the current and earlier blooms is that, when this year’s event started, Lake Hume was much fuller, at about 30% capacity. So reservoir operation probably had less to do with the bloom’s formation than other factors, such as the climate. Both the maximum and minimum temperatures were consistently above the long-term average during the past few months, as was the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of Lake Hume.

The algae-stricken river at Barmah in northern Victoria.
Darren Baldwin, Author provided

We still do not know exactly what triggered this year’s bloom, but if it was indeed a result of unusually warm temperatures, it is very likely that we will see more blooms of this type in the future.

Are we really ready for recurrent blue-green algal blooms on the Murray River? These blooms come at a significant economic cost: drinking water has had to be specially treated to remove potential toxins, and the bloom has impacted on regional tourism, coinciding with the Labour Day and Easter long weekends. It also hit farmers, who had to get drinking water for their livestock from elsewhere.

More importantly, what do these frequent blooms say about how we manage water in this country – especially as we start to see the impacts of climate change on our environment? Dwindling water could mean more than just drought – it could also fill much of the water that remains with poisonous microbes.

The Conversation

Darren Baldwin, Environmental Scientist, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.