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Thousands of plant species remain unphotographed

Although scientists have documented plant species for centuries to better understand and protect the amazing diversity of flora around the world, many of these species have never been photographed in their natural habitat. By surveying 33 major online databases of plant photographs, a team of researchers led by the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) and the Australian Institute of Botanical Science has found that, out of 21,077 species of native Australian vascular plants, nearly 20 percent lack verifiable photographs. 

Such a lack of detailed photographic records can have serious consequences, with many undocumented plant species at risk of becoming extinct.

“It was surprising to see how many plant species had just line drawings, illustrations, paintings, or even no media at all,” said study lead author Thomas Mesaglio, a PhD student in Botany at UNSW. “Having a comprehensive photographic set helps us to be confident in our identifications. Particularly when it is practically challenging to collect and preserve the entire plant, photos complement the physical voucher by showing the soil type, the habitat it’s growing in, and other species growing alongside it.”

The experts found that the most well-photographed plant groups tend to be trees or shrubs with noticeable or even spectacular features, such as colorful flowers. For instance, while Banksia is one of the two Australian plant genera with over 40 species to have a complete photographic record, the family with the most significant plant deficit is Poaceae (commonly known as grasses), with 343 unphotographed species.

“We noticed a charisma deficit, so the species that tend to be harder to see are the ones missing out. They may have innocuous or pale-looking flowers or be smaller and harder to spot grasses, sedges, and herbs,” Mesaglio explained. Moreover, geography significantly affects the photographic record too, with plants located in difficult to access environments being less photographed.

The scientists urge citizen scientists to help constructing comprehensive photographic records for professional scientists to use in identification guides, by engaging with platforms such as iNaturalist,  a network of citizen scientists and biologists aiming to map and share observations of biodiversity across the world. 

“People can engage with, sympathize with, and get much more excited about plants with photographs, which is vital when our natural environments are more at risk than ever,” Mesaglio argued. “Because digital photography is so accessible now, anyone can also help make a meaningful contribution to science using the camera in their pocket.”

In addition, Mesaglio and his colleagues recommend the development of a standardized system for scientific plant photography, and publish all new species descriptions as Open Access in searchable databases with Creative Commons licensing to maximize their usage.

“We also suspect more photos exist, but they’re hidden away on social media or behind scientific paywalls that aren’t accessible, discoverable, or searchable. Of the species with photographs, many have a single photo. We not only want to capture those unrepresented species but also continue building the photographic record for all species. Doing so will help us identify, monitor, and conserve our native species for generations to come,” Mesaglio concluded.

The study is published in the journal New Phytologist.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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