Half of all Plants have Never been Photographed in the Wild

FORT WORTH, Texas (July 30, 2021) — A paper published in the journal Nature Plants demonstrates the lack of a global, comprehensive record of plant field photographs and advocates for a centralized repository of field images to preserve and provide access.

Jason Best, a Fort Worth Botanic Garden | Botanical Research Institute of Texas researcher, is a co-author of the paper titled “Identifying gaps in the photographic record of the vascular plant flora of the Americas” and says that plant images captured in their wild habitat are needed for research, conservation, and documenting plant diversity.

“We know there is a wealth of plant images scattered across the Internet, but they can be difficult to find and offer only an incomplete picture of botanical diversity,” Best said. “If we can consolidate these images and plant data into a centralized resource, it will be a very powerful tool for research and conservation and will allow us to develop a more comprehensive record of plants in their wild habitat.”

BRIT developed the Atrium Biodiversity Information System, one of the prominent plant data repositories which were surveyed to determine the proportion of wild plant images available online. “We created Atrium with the vision of making wild plant images and data available for research,” Best said. “We hope that someday soon, Atrium and other systems like it will be able to combine our efforts and images in a centralized resource that will allow us to address critical research needs.”

The authors surveyed 25 large websites that display plant photographs, ranging from social media sites like Flickr and Pl@ntNet to community science sites like iNaturalist to academic sites like Brazil’s Flora do Brasil project and the Field Museum’s Live Plant Photos gallery.

“When you tally up all the plants that are displayed on these websites,” said Dr. Tomomi Suwa of the Field Museum, a co-author of the study, “you get a list containing tens of thousands of species. Which is really satisfying. But then you get an equally long list of species for which we can’t find a single photo.”

The study suggests that most of the plants that haven’t been photographed yet grow in megadiverse tropical plant communities. For example, Brazil harbors more plants than any other country—almost 35,000—but some 15,000 of those have not yet been photographed.

And there’s another problem. The authors also discovered that no single website they surveyed contained photographs of most plant species—not even Google, or the world’s Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

“We need to organize plant photos into a global online gallery where it’s easy to find them,” said Dr. Nigel Pitman of the Field Museum, a co-author of the study. “This isn’t just tidying up. We’re in the middle of a global extinction crisis, and we can’t protect endangered plants if we don’t know what they look like.”

The study focused on the plants of the Western Hemisphere: North America (which has the best-photographed flora), South America, Central America, and the Caribbean (which has the least-photographed flora). The 31 authors are based in institutions across the United States, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, and Europe.

Editors: Photos available upon request. Contact csmith@brit.org

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