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Taller and prettier plants are more likely to be studied by botanists

flowers

The blue flowers of Gentiana ligustica seem to attract scientific attention

FLPA / Alamy

Plants that are taller and more attractive are more likely to be studied by botanists, suggests an analysis of research conducted over the past 45 years.

Martino Adamo at the University of Turin in Italy and his colleagues analysed 280 scientific papers published between 1975 and 2020 that mention one or more of a selection of 113 small flowering plant species typical of the south-western Alps in Europe.

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Using a statistical model, they found that the physical appearance of a plant – its colour, the size of its flowers and the height of its stems – was the most important factor in explaining research interest amongst botanists, trumping ecological importance, rarity and abundance.

Plants with blue flowers received the most attention. “Blue plants, such as Gentiana ligustica, in particular were really well studied,” says Adamo. Plants with white and red flowers were also significantly more researched than plants with brown and green flowers, which stand out the least from their background.

“Looking at our model, plants taller than the average height in their habitat are more likely to be studied as well,” says Adamo. He and his team suggest that taller plants may have been more frequently examined because they are more accessible to researchers – they wouldn’t have to stoop to the ground to inspect the plant’s leaves, for instance.

This may introduce a bias to botanical studies, as researchers are more likely to examine one type of plant than another, says Diego Fontaneto at Italy’s National Research Council.

Adamo and his team hope to use these findings to inform better policies and conservation efforts aimed at avoiding the neglect of particular plants in the Alps. Although the analysis was only done on Alpine flora, the researchers are interested in investigating whether this pattern is seen in other ecosystems across the world.

Journal reference: Nature Plants, DOI: 10.1038/s41477-021-00912-2

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