Researchers say there's an urgent need for a global database of field photos of plants. 

Above, Nototriche parviflora, a cushion plant endemic to the high Andes of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. This is the only field photograph of the species found in the 25 online datasets surveyed in the study. Photo by Fernando O. Zuloaga, courtesy of Argentina’s Instituto de Botanica Darwinion.

Sept. 8, 2021

Search the internet and usually you can find information and photos on just about any subject. But for plant researchers combing the web for images of specific flora taken in the wild, in many cases, those photos don't exist yet. 

It turns out that for nearly half of the roughly 125,000 known plant species in North, Central and South America, no reseach-grade field photo of the species can be found online.

Jason BestJason Best, director of biodiversity informatics at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, was among the coauthors of a recently-published paper called "Identifying gaps in the photographic record of the vascular plant flora of the Americas."

Jason Best is the director of biodiversity informatics at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, and among the 31 coauthors of a recently-published paper called Identifying gaps in the photographic record of the vascular plant flora of the Americas.

He says the lack of clear images of plant species out in their natural habitat is an obstacle for botanists, entomologists, horticulturalists and anybody else who’s simply trying to find out more about a specific plant.

“So we have almost 100 percent of these plant species documented in an image, but it's a flat specimen, so it may have lost some of its color. It may have lost some of its shape because it's been flattened,” Best says.

Unlike physical specimens, field images can show important features of the plant, including how it looks when it's growing naturally, rather than when it’s been pressed and preserved. 

“An image of a living plant preserves the color, it preserves the shape better, and it preserves the context in which it would actually be encountered in the wild and would make it more recognizable and identifiable when you see it,” Best says.

"That's still an important scientific bit of information to track and record. And we've done a pretty good job of preserving the physical plant specimens and making digital images available, but this study discovered and demonstrated that we have a lot to do to make those living images available.”

Herbarium manager Tiana Rehman leafs through BRIT's plant specimen collection.Herbarium manager Tiana Rehman leafs through BRIT's plant specimen collection. Courtesy of BRIT.

NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK

Best says another obstacle in the search for plant field photos is the lack of a single global database. What images are available online are spread out over about two dozen different resources, ranging from social media sites such as Flickr and [email protected] to community science sites such as iNaturalist. Universities and other research institutions usually have their own resources, such as the Field Museum's Live Plant Photo Gallery

Likewise, BRIT’s Atrium Biodiversity Information System has information and field photos online for about 7,000 species that the organization has researched. 

Brachyotum fictumBrachyotum fictum, a shrub narrowly endemic to Andean paramos in southeastern Ecuador. This recently discovered field photograph is the only known photographic record of the taxon, one of more than 50,000 vascular plant species of the Americas for which a field photograph was not found in online databases. Photo by Iván Jiménez, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

But each of these databases merely scratches the surface when it comes to cataloging in one resource all the known plant species, and they tend to focus on one region or another. Having to spend time looking into each photo resource in an attempt to identify a plant is therefore a task unto itself — which can be fruitless. 

Platycarpum vriesendorpiae, courtesy of the Field MuseumOne of the only known photos of the tree Platycarpum vriesendorpiae, described in 2018 and known exclusively from white-sand and peatland forests in Amazonian Peru. Photo by Luis Torres Montenegro, courtesy of the Field Museum.

Without access to an authoritative and comprehensive database of wild plant photos, anyone trying to identify a specific plant is hampered by the enormity of the search — whether it's botanists studying the medicinal qualities of a specimen; entomologists researching the biodiversity of a region; horticulturalists looking into the adaptability of a plant for landscaping; or even just a hiker who wants to find out what’s growing along a nature trail. Moreover, saving plant species that are on the brink of extinction depends on field researchers being able to accurately identify the imperiled plants when they find them in the wild.

Without access to an authoritative and comprehensive database of wild plant photos, anyone trying to identify a specific plant is hampered by the enormity of the search— whether it's botanists studying the medicinal qualities of a specimen; entomologists researching the biodiversity of a region; horticulturalists looking into the adaptability of a plant for landscaping; or even just a hiker who wants to find out what’s growing along a nature trail.

MISSING LINKS

The list of missing wild photos includes flowers, grasses, shrubs, trees — the whole gamut — especially aquatic plants that require underwater photography gear and a photographer’s willingness to dive into sometimes murky waters teaming with wildlife.

“An image of a living plant preserves the color, it preserves the shape better, and it preserves the context in which it would actually be encountered in the wild and would make it more recognizable and identifiable when you see it,” Best says.

North American tends to be the best represented with online field photos. The photos in shortest supply are those of shrubs, trees and herbs in South America or the Caribbean. The paper concludes that at present, there is no single online resource where a user has a more than a 50 percent chance of locating a photograph of a given American plant species — not even Google Image Search.

Plant researchers have generally known that a large portion of what they study is in short supply of such wild imagery, but the paper was the first to document the problem and estimate the number of photos that are lacking.

The paper concludes that at present, there is no single online resource where a user has a more than a 50 percent chance of locating a photograph of a given American plant species — not even Google Image Search.

The paper stops short of suggesting how to solve the problem or what organization or institution should take the lead, but Best says whatever solution emerges will likely depend on the contributions of amatuer scientists and anyone with a penchant for taking nature photos.

“There are so few botanists but many millions of community scientists and individuals out there taking pictures all the time,” Best says. “There are probably people sitting in their home right now around the world that are maybe easily within one mile of some of these plants that have never been captured in the wild.”

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