Plants that have aesthetic appeal are more likely to be studied by researchers regardless of their ecological importance, suggests a paper published in Nature Plants. These findings have implications for conservation biology and may inform better research practices.
Plants have played a significant role in the evolution of modern science, and their properties continue to be analysed. A researcher conducting a laboratory-based study might consider functional criteria, such as growth rate or genetics, to identify a plant species to examine, whereas field scientists might prioritize a particular species based on various non-ecological factors. Such scenarios might alter research outcomes and could impact future conservation efforts, but quantifying these biases has been difficult.
Martino Adamo and colleagues analysed 113 plant species—typical of the Southwestern Alps—mentioned in 280 peer-reviewed papers over the past 45 years. The authors found that morphological characteristics, such as accessible flowers and conspicuousness, were among the traits that attracted research attention. They also found that blue plants were the most studied, and that white, red and pink flowers were more common in the literature than the baseline of green and brown plants. Stem height, a plant’s ability to stand out among others, was also a contributing factor. The authors also determined that rarity was not a significant driver for research attention.
These morphological traits, which do not affect the ecological relevance and importance of the plants, constitute an ‘aesthetic bias’, argue the authors. This bias may have negative impacts in that it may skew conservation efforts in favour of plants that get more attention, regardless of other plants and the health of the overall ecosystem.
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