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Current emoji library doesn’t accurately represent the Tree of Life

In an insightful analysis, a team of conservation biologists have highlighted a significant gap in the current emoji library’s representation of biodiversity and the “Tree of Life”. They argue that while animals are well depicted, other forms of life like plants, fungi, and microorganisms are glaringly underrepresented.

Assessing emoji biodiversity

The research team, consisting of Stefano Mammola, Mattia Falaschi, and Gentile Francesco Ficetola, categorized emojis from the emoji library related to nature and animals from Emojipedia and mapped them onto the phylogenetic tree of life.

Their findings, displayed in a fascinating phylogenetic trees of emojis, revealed a skewed representation favoring animals, particularly vertebrates, over other vital lifeforms in the “tree of life”.

“While the biodiversity crisis may seem distant from the online world, in our increasingly digitized society, we should not underestimate the potential of emojis to raise awareness and foster appreciation for the diversity of life on Earth,” the research team wrote.

“Tree of Life” and the emoji library

Their analysis identified 112 distinct organisms in emoji form: 92 animals, 16 plants, 1 fungus (likely Amanita muscaria), and 1 microorganism (likely Escherichia coli). Vertebrates dominated the animal emojis at 76%, followed by arthropods (16%). This starkly contrasts with real-world biodiversity, where arthropods far outnumber vertebrates.

“Currently available emojis encompass a broad range of animal species, while plants, fungi, and microorganisms are underrepresented,” the researchers write. “Such strong taxonomic bias is in line with current societal awareness of biodiversity, which tends to prioritize animals over other taxa.”

Emoji library’s representation of animals

The researchers then took a deeper dive into the biodiversity characteristics of animal emojis. They managed to identify some emojis as individual animal species, like the bald eagle and giant panda, while they could only classify others at the genus or family level, such as those representing ants or crocodilians.

In their findings, vertebrates accounted for 76% of the animal emojis, arthropods for 16%, mollusks for 4%, cnidarians for 2%, and annelids for 1%. Considering that over 1.3 million arthropod species exist compared to around 85,000 vertebrate species, the current emoji catalog significantly underrepresents arthropod biodiversity while overrepresenting vertebrates.

Furthermore, the researchers pointed out the complete absence of emojis for platyhelminths (including flatworms and tapeworms) and nematodes, even though each of these groups includes more than 20,000 species.

Emoji “Tree of Life” diversity is evolving

Fortunately, the diversity of emojis seems to be on the rise. In 2015, emoji representation included only 45 animal taxa, but this number grew to 78 by 2019 and further to 92 by 2022. Not only did the number of animal emojis increase, but their representativeness of biodiversity also improved during this period. Initially, emojis only depicted vertebrates, arthropods, and mollusks.

However, by 2020, annelids joined this group with the introduction of the “worm” emoji, likely symbolizing an earthworm, and cnidarians followed in 2021 with the addition of a red coral emoji.

“This increase in phylogenetic diversity driven by less-known taxa emphasizes a positive trend of enhanced opportunities for emojifying biodiversity communication, allowing users of digital platforms to discuss a range of biodiversity-related topics and sentiments more effectively, beyond the icons depicting iconic species,” the researchers write.

Biodiversity in the digitized world

The authors emphasize the role of emojis in today’s digitized society for raising awareness about biodiversity.

“The development and maintenance of diverse and inclusive emoji sets are crucial to ensure the equitable representation of the tree of life in digital communication tools and to effectively convey messages on the importance of all the organisms for the functioning of the biosphere,” they state.

Creating a more diverse emoji catalog could greatly aid conversations around biodiversity and conservation. The authors argue for the need for inclusive emoji sets to ensure equitable representation of all organisms and to effectively convey the importance of biodiversity in digital communications.

The team suggests that further research is needed to understand how nature-related emojis are utilized in discussions about biodiversity and conservation. This could potentially open up new avenues for engaging the public in these critical topics.

In summary, this eye-opening analysis by Mammola, Falaschi, and Ficetola underscores a critical need for a more inclusive emoji library that accurately represents the rich diversity of life. As digital communication continues to be a dominant medium, ensuring that our digital tools reflect the full spectrum of biodiversity becomes increasingly important for fostering awareness and engagement in conservation efforts.

The full study was published in the journal iScience.


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