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Scientists prefer studying pretty plants to dull ones

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WHO WAS responsible for inventing the term “charismatic megafauna” is lost in the mists of time. The words do, though, describe a real phenomenon, which is that big, showy animals tend to get a disproportionate amount of attention from biologists. Whether this reflects the prejudices of the researchers themselves or is a consequence of a wider public interest in preserving showy species, and of the concomitant funding which accompanies that interest, is not clear. Probably a bit of both. But what is true for the animal kingdom is, it now turns out, true for the plant one as well, as Martino Adamo of the University of Turin, in Italy, describes this week in Nature Plants.

While conducting research in the mountains near Turin on Tephroseris balbisiana, a scruffy yellow-flowered ragwort (pictured), Dr Adamo noticed it was easier to track down information about other, more beautiful, species found in the region than it was to discover things about the object of his own research. That led him to wonder if the well-attested preferences of zoologists for the showy also extends to botanists. To find out, he recruited a team of fellow researchers to help him analyse the literature on the matter.

To keep the project within bounds, the team restricted their attention to Dr Adamo’s original area of investigation, the south-western Alps. Surveys suggest this is inhabited by 113 endemic plants—a number large enough to be statistically meaningful but small enough to be tractable.

First, the team compiled, for each of these species, a set of data that recorded three types of trait: ecological (preferred elevation, soil acidity, light levels and moisture); rarity (geographical-range size, and also conservation status as described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature); and aesthetic (flower colour, stem height and flower diameter). They then searched a database called the Web of Science for papers published since 1975 that included the names of any of the species in question.

They found 280 such papers, statistical analysis of which revealed that certain plants were not only more studied than others, but also shared particular traits more often than would be expected by chance. Foremost of these was flower colour. Plants with blue flowers, such as Gentiana ligustica, the trumpet gentian (also pictured), were heavily over-represented. White-flowered plants did well, too. And so did those which display their flowers prominently, on long stems.

The other cause of greater-than-expected scientific attention was a plant’s range size—the larger the better. That, presumably, is a consequence of ease of study. But in the matter of charisma it seems that, like the insects which flowers have evolved to attract, botanists are lured by the showy, and are therefore just as susceptible as their zoological colleagues to aesthetic bias in their choice of topic.

This article appeared in the Science & technology section of the print edition under the headline “Charismatic megaflora”

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.