Citizen Science Conservation Soil and Fertilizer

The Dirt on Soil

Continuing our soil theme from yesterday, today’s post focuses on pollutants in soil.

Map of the study area and watersheds near village Kibber in the high-altitude region of Spiti, Trans-Himalaya, northern India. The colored polygons represent eight watersheds spread over c. 40 km2. The native and livestock watersheds are demarcated by high ridges, escarpments and ravines, that establish replicates of two types of herbivore-assemblages (dominated by either livestock or by native herbivores). Credit: (2022). DOI: 10.1101/2022.02.07.479355

Antibiotic-laced dung ‘harming soil quality’

Antibiotics used on livestock can impact microbes in the soil and negatively affect soil carbon, reducing resilience to climate change, claims a study conducted in India’s trans-Himalayan region. Results of the study, published in Global Change Biology, found native herbivores such as yak, bharal (blue sheep), kiang (wild ass) and ibex in the Spiti valley, in India’s Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, to be healthier for soil carbon than livestock, which includes cattle, goat, sheep and horse. “Microbial carbon use efficiency was 19% lower in soils under livestock,” said Sumanta Bagchi, an author of the study and assistant professor at the Center for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

Supporting evidence in the study pointed to a link between veterinary antibiotics and soil microbial decline. “Our study suggests that conserving native herbivores together with better management of livestock can go a long way towards improved soil carbon stewardship to achieve natural climate change solutions,” says Bagchi. “Our paper focused on climate impacts linked to the use of antibiotics for livestock rearing but there are other undesirable consequences such as the accelerated evolution of antibiotic resistance which is a global trend,” they added.

Home ‘compostable’ plastic doesn’t fully break down

Compostable plastic that has not fully disintegrated in compost bin. Credit: Citizen scientist image from

In a UK-wide study, researchers have found that 60% of home-compostable plastics do not fully disintegrate in home compost bins, and inevitably end up in our soil. The study also found that citizens are confused about the labels of compostable and biodegradable plastics, leading to incorrect plastic waste disposal. These results highlight the need to revise and redesign this supposedly sustainable plastic waste management system.

A new OECD report shows that plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years. Globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, while 50% ends up in landfills, 22% evades waste management systems, and 19% is incinerated. Compostable plastics are becoming more common as the demand for sustainable products grows. The main applications of compostable plastics include food packaging, bags; cups and plates, cutlery, and bio-waste bags. But there are some fundamental problems with these types of plastics. They are largely unregulated, and claims around their environmental benefits are often exaggerated.

In a study published in Frontiers in Sustainability, researchers at University College London have found that consumers are often confused about the meaning of the labels of compostable plastics, and that a large portion of compostable plastics do not fully disintegrate under home composting conditions.

Soil pollution in natural areas similar to urban green spaces

Microplastic debris. Credit: Roberto Ruiz (UA)

An international study, recently published in Nature Communications, shows that soil in urban green spaces and natural areas share similar levels of multiple contaminants such as metals, pesticides, microplastics and antibiotic resistance genes around the world. Soil contamination is one of the main threats to the health and sustainability of ecosystems. The work was carried out by more than 40 authors from research centers and universities in Spain, China, Switzerland, Australia, Germany, Chile, South Africa, Nigeria, France, Portugal, Slovenia, Mexico, the United States, Brazil, India and Israel. The team has collaborated with ecologist Carlos Sanz Lázaro and Nuria Casado Coy, researchers at the Ramón Margalef Multidisciplinary Institute for Environmental Studies (IMEM), and experts in the study of plastic and bioplastic pollution.

As the article reports, soil pollution is currently associated with vehicle emissions, industrial processes, pesticide treatment and plant diseases, as well as poor waste management. It is therefore to be expected that urban green spaces are more influenced by pollutants than natural ecosystems, which are geographically distant from human activities. However, the study has shown that hazardous pollutants (metals, pesticides, microplastics and antibiotic resistance genes) can be dispersed by air transport, uncontrolled waste disposal and even rainwater running off the surface of a piece of land and into natural ecosystems.

Microplastics, typical pollutants of anthropogenic (human) origin, are also ubiquitous in soils of urban green spaces and natural ecosystems around the world. Surprisingly, as reported by Sanz Lázaro, they have found similar proportions of the form and polymer type of microplastics in natural areas and urban green spaces, which further supports the idea of a spread of anthropogenic pollutants through ecosystems. These microplastics, often originating from cities, affect distant areas by atmospheric transport, with fibers being the main form of plastic particles suspended in the atmosphere in cities such as Paris, London and Dongguan (China). The fibers generally consist of polyester and polypropylene from synthetic fabrics, ropes, and nets.

(See also: From cities to uninhabited areas: Soil pollution is everywhere)

Citizen Science Pollinators, Molluscs and Other Invertebrates Uncategorized Weeds

2023 February Citizen Science

If there’s one thing I hope to accomplish with this blog, it’s that folks reading it will be inspired to become their own citizen scientists. Increasingly, the data collected by ordinary people, including gardeners like us is being used to inform science and policy. Here are some examples of how powerful citizen science can be.

Óðinn / CC BY-SA 2.5 CA (Wikimedia Commons photo). Image from The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Urban forest-mapping in Montreal

A Concordia project cataloging the diversity of the urban forest in a Montreal residential neighborhood is now complete, and the researchers behind it say the results highlight the importance of a diverse city tree population. The project found that private residences and institutions such as schools and places of worship usually had different tree populations from those planted by municipal authorities in city parks and roadways or sidewalks. While the city-planted trees tended to be bigger and more resilient to stressors like drought or salt, the often-smaller private trees served other functions such as providing fruit, flowers or aesthetic beauty. The full findings are published in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. The researchers solicited residents and institutions such as schools and churches around Concordia’s Loyola Campus in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighborhood. They asked them to measure the circumference of the trees on their property, photograph their bark and leaves and submit their data to the Montreal Tree Project website for analysis. Private residences were found to have the highest richness in species diversity while institutional lands—mostly schools and churches—were found to have the lowest. “From an ecological standpoint, having a diverse tree population leads to a more multifunctional landscape,” says Hutt-Taylor, now the project coordinator of nature-based solutions at Concordia’s Loyola Campus. “It can also provide a more resilient forest to events like climate change, changes in the environmental fabric of the city as well as to pests and disease.”

Drosera koikyennuruff. Credit: Thilo Krueger

Everyday Aussies help find missing plant species

Scientists have identified six new or rediscovered Western Australian plant species from photos taken and uploaded to the internet by members of the public, including a nature photographer from Jurien Bay, a pair of wildflower enthusiasts from Dongara and a farmer from near the Stirling Range National Park. Lead researcher, Ph.D. student Thilo Krueger from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences said the newly described species were carnivorous sundews and were identified through images shared on Facebook and to the iNaturalist website, highlighting the value of such platforms for contributing to advances in taxonomic research. The work was published in Biology.

Image from EU Observer article What Europe still needs to do to save its bees. Photo: Dearbhlaith Larkin & Felipe Guapo, Carolan Lab Research Group, Maynooth University, Ireland

Citizen science initiatives increase pollinator activity in private gardens

Have you made adjustments to your garden to make it more welcoming for pollinators? If so, you have probably made a valuable contribution, according to a new study from Lund University. The researchers evaluated the national “Operation: Save the Bees” campaign, and their results indicate that what private individuals do in their gardens really can make a positive difference. In 2018, The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation launched a campaign to save bees and other pollinators, aiming to get the public involved by creating more favorable environments in private gardens. The actions that were encouraged were to create a meadow, plant flowers or set up a bee hotel. Around 11,000 Swedes responded to the call, and now researchers from Lund University have evaluated the measures. The result show that the greatest positive effect on the number of pollinating insects was if you had a meadow with a higher number of flowering species in your garden. As for flower plantings, it was favorable if they were older and also covered a larger area. Bee hotels, in turn, were more often inhabited if they were located in flower-rich gardens, if they were older, and if the nest holes were a maximum of one centimeter in diameter. Since the researchers collected the data via peoples’ own estimates, there is a great deal of uncertainty in each individual data point, says Anna Persson, but adds that one can still be confident in the results given that so many responses were received. The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.

Canada Thistle (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

RHS asks gardeners to find interesting ‘weeds’

Helena Horton writes in The Guardian about a citizen science initiative by the Royal Horticultural Society. Private gardens in the UK may be an untapped source of scientific discovery, according to the RHS’s new ecologist, because “scientists can’t just go into people’s gardens”. Instead, Gemma Golding, who started working for the charity late last year, wants gardeners to look for interesting species and submit them to the iNaturalist app for scientists to analyse. What may be viewed as a weed could be a rare plant, or growing in an unusual place where it has not been recorded before. The quid pro quo is that gardeners will get feedback on the mystery plants they find. Armed with more knowledge, they will be better able to manage problems that crop up in their gardens.

Biodiversity Citizen Science Climate Change Conservation Invasive Species

Happy Lunar New Year!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.

Today marks the Lunar New Year and the start of the year of the rabbit. While most gardeners are not fond of rabbits, Dr. Emma Sherratt, Evolutionary Biologist at The University of Adelaide, writes movingly of the plight of the once common bunny and its less common relatives.

In Australia, bunnies are a much-reviled invasive species that causes enormous ecological harm. Elsewhere, these long-eared animals fill diverse ecological niches. The long-eared animals we tend to call bunnies and the lesser-known pikas (small mountain-dwelling animals from Asia and North America) form a group of animals known as Lagomorpha. Science currently recognizes about 108 lagomorph species. These evolutionary cousins to rodents are found on all continents except Antarctica and are surprisingly close to primates on the Tree of Life. In 2013, researchers found that more than two-thirds of rabbit species were already threatened by climate change. Since then, the number of species that are endangered or critically endangered has risen from 13 to 16 on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. The rabbits need our help.

Water Rabbits

Water rabbits are not just an astrological fancy. The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) and marsh rabbit (S. palustris) of North America are adapted to living in wetlands and are known to swim. Luckily these species are marked as least concern on the conservation IUCN Red List. Less luckily, the riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis), a majestic, reddish-coloured rabbit from South Africa that inhabits the banks of rivers and streams is critically endangered. This species faces both the effects of climate change and habitat destruction, and threats from other bunnies. Lepus hares, which are larger and are generalist feeders, out-compete and displace the riverine rabbits when resources become scarce.

Not all rabbits make endless babies

On two subtropical islands in southwestern Japan live Amami rabbits (Pentalagus furnessi), sometimes referred to as a “living fossil” because they have primitive characters like small ears and legs better for scurrying than hopping. The almost black Amami rabbits inhabit dense tropical forests, and are sadly endangered. Unusual among lagomorphs, Amami rabbits usually have only one – rarely two – offspring. That evolutionary adaptation worked well on for an island habitat where there were not predators. However, in 1979, Indian mongooses were introduced to combat snakes. The mongooses also ate a lot of bunnies. Authorities are now working on a mongoose eradication program to save the endemic rabbits and birds from extinction.

Mountain refuges

In times of climate change, mountains can become islands for alpine species. In the Annamite Range mountains of Vietnam and Laos lives another endemic rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), striped in black and reddish-brown. This endangered species is among the least understood rabbits, but we do know it’s under threat from intensive poaching. In the mountains of Mexico lives the volcano rabbit (Romerolgaus diazi). One of the world’s smallest rabbit species, it is in trouble due to the effects of cattle grazing and land conversion for agriculture.

The tiny and adorable volcano rabbit is endemic to a handful of volcanoes in Mexico. Saúl Saldaña/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

Even the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), the only species to have been domesticated, is endangered in its native range, despite having been exported around the world by hungry humans who used them for food. In the Iberian Peninsula, where they are native, the European rabbit’s numbers have plummeted. Conservation measures are required because these bunnies are a key food source for  the Iberian lynx, which is making its comeback from being the most endangered cat in the world.

Protecting biodiversity

Many of the endangered lagomorph species have unique traits that are still to be uncovered by scientists. Limited geographical distributions and habitat preferences make them vulnerable to a changing environment and difficult to study. That is why citizen science is valuable for these species, because local eyes keenly spotting animals is one of the best methods for data collection. So make your Lunar New Year’s resolution to be a bunny advocate.

For example, you can go to the iNaturalist network to familiarise yourself with the diversity of species. And next time you’re on holiday and you see a rabbit, be sure to snap a picture and upload your sighting. In Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Federation offers information and tips on managing bunnies in your garden, and on indigenous species, such as snowshoe hares.

Children Citizen Science Health

2023 January: Children

Colourful signage and picket fence make for a bright welcome to the Children’s Garden. Photo by Lorne Abugov. Reproduced from The MainStreeter community newspaper.

Ottawa’s First Dedicated Children’s Garden Is An Oasis of Green and Growth

One of the delights of living in Old Ottawa East is its proximity to green spaces and natural beauty. Since 2008, Robert Legget Park has been transformed into Ottawa’s first dedicated Children’s Garden. A veritable oasis of green and growth, the Garden represents a true community effort, with contributions from many local groups. As is appropriate for a Children’s Garden, students at Lady Evelyn Alternative School undertook research and design work, which resulted in the garden plan. As well, each fence picket was painted by a student at the school. Improvements were made in 2017 and, more recently, a garden manager was hired. This is also a teaching garden. Jennifer San from Let’s Talk Science at uOttawa and CarletonU and Hannah Keefe from Frontier College Ottawa were on hand on a particularly lovely day in early July to offer their expertise. A group of enthusiastic children gathered around the seating circle and were spellbound while Keefe read The Giving Tree by The Giving Tree . She and San then encouraged the children to think about the story and what they can do to appreciate and respect nature. The children then dashed around the Garden to find a leaf that interested them. Back at the table, they were given a chunk of clay to roll out and press their leaves into to create an impression. The children summed up the activity with enthusiasm: “excellent, fun, great, helpful knowledge.”

School garden-based interventions can improve blood sugar, reduce bad cholesterol in children

School garden-based interventions can improve metabolic parameters such as blood sugar and cholesterol in children, according to a new study from UTHealth Houston. A cluster randomized controlled trial conducted by researchers with UTHealth Houston School of Public Health and The University of Texas at Austin found that Texas Sprouts—a gardening, nutrition, and cooking intervention implemented in elementary schools in Austin—improved glucose control and reduced bad cholesterol in high-risk minority youth. The results were published in JAMA Network Open.

A new project by the Royal Horticultural Society aims to find out the best species of hedge to plant in urban areas. Photograph: RHS Images/PA

Scientist enlists pupils to see how hedges can make greener schools

Ever thought there should be more hedges in playgrounds? A group of urban schoolchildren are going to be taking part in a scientific study to see what impact a hedge can have. A project by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) aims to find out the best species of hedge to plant in urban areas, so it can be rolled out across state schools that suffer from air pollution and a lack of green space. Dr Tijana Blanusa, the RHS principal scientist, decided to carry out her research in schools after realising her two children had very little access to nature at their urban state primary. The children will be involved in learning more about the role of plants in reducing flood risks, improving air quality and summertime cooling – either by using a new online tool made by the RHS or through hands-on science sessions in school, led by the science team. However, there will be a control group of children without access to the hedge, to see the difference having green space makes.

Biodiversity Citizen Science Conservation Miscellany Pollinators, Molluscs and Other Invertebrates

December 2022: Pollinator & Invertebrate Round-up

Image courtesy of Empress of Dirt

‘Bees get all the credit’: slugs and snails among 2023 Chelsea flower show stars: Stag beetles and hornets will be among the stars of Chelsea flower show next year as horticulturalists encourage people to welcome invertebrates into the garden. Bumblebees and butterflies tend to get a lot of press, but in a 2023 garden sponsored by the Royal Entomological Society, less glamorous creepy-crawlies will take centre stage. The garden may startle those used to more pristine spaces, as it will feature rotting wood and leaves as habitat for beetles and other insects, but it will still include a vast array of native and non-native flowering plants, which will be there to encourage pollinators. It will highlight how pollination, food security and preventing vector-borne diseases are critical to our survival in a changing world and that insect conservation is often undervalued compared with mammal and bird conservation. [Editor’s note: this article includes tips on insect-friendly gardening.]

(A) Overall view of the experimental setup during training. The wooden box was covered by a transparent cover, which allowed observing the behavior of the bees accessing the inner compartments. After passing the first inner compartment, the focal bee faced a training stimulus placed in the middle of the back wall. An Eppendorf tip delivered sucrose solution in the middle of the image. (B) Overall view of the experimental setup during a test. After passing the first inner compartment, the focal bee faced two lateral walls displaying the same test alternative on each side. The test stimuli were novel to the trained bee, i.e. they were never experienced during the training. No reward was provided during the test. The first choice and the cumulative choices performed during 40 s were recorded. (C) Examples of stimuli used in the first and second experiment. (D) Stimuli used in the third experiment. (E) Examples of stimuli used in the fourth experiment. Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2203584119

Honeybees use a ‘mental number line’ to keep track of things: A small team of researchers with members from the University of Toulouse, the University of Lausanne and the University of Padova has found evidence that honeybees have a mental number line in their tiny brains. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group describes experiments they conducted with captive honeybees. Prior research has suggested that in to addition humans, baby chickens possess what scientists call a mental number line. Numbers of things are represented in the brain and are processed in a left-to-right direction. For example, when most people are asked to sort piles of grapes by the number, most do so from left to right, with the smallest pile on the left. In this new effort, the researchers wondered whether honeybees might also use a mental number line to keep track of things. To find out, they conducted a two-stage experiment.

Credit: N. Gamonal, Didde Sørensen

Following insect ‘footprints’ to improve crop resilience and monitor pollinator biodiversity: Bees and other insects leave behind tiny “footprints” of environmental DNA on plants each time they visit, giving researchers a way of tracking where insects have been, and offering clues on how to help them flourish. A team of researchers, including the Wellcome Sanger Institute and led by the University of Copenhagen, have used these DNA footprints as a non-invasive way to collect information on insect biodiversity, giving new insight into how to boost pollination and protect insect biodiversity and crops against threats such as climate change. The new study, published in Environmental DNA, is the first time DNA footprints have been used alongside visual observations to track the kind of insect visitors to crops, helping to see if there are any pests and informing new ways to encourage beneficial insects. Didde Hedegaard Sørensen, laboratory technician and an author from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark says, “The exciting thing about this study is that it can have an immediate, real-world impact on agricultural systems. Our results can assist farmers in managing their crops against the rising threats of reduced pollinators. Environmental DNA can be used to investigate the biodiversity in agricultural landscapes beyond apple orchards, making it a fast and non-invasive way to gain more knowledge about the world around us.”

AI rendering bees and electricity. Credit: Ellard Hunting

Insects contribute to atmospheric electricity: By measuring the electrical fields near swarming honeybees, researchers have discovered that insects can produce as much atmospheric electric charge as a thunderstorm cloud. This type of electricity helps shape weather events, aids insects in finding food, and lifts spiders up in the air to migrate over large distances. The research, appearing in the journal iScience, demonstrates that living things can have an impact on atmospheric electricity.

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

California county sees highest number of monarch butterflies in more than 20 years: There’s some hope fluttering around San Luis Obispo County this holiday season. It comes in the form of an iconic orange-and-black striped butterfly that makes tall eucalyptus or Monterey cypress trees its home up and down the coast. More than 129,000 western monarch butterflies were counted in the county by Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation employees and volunteers in November, according to preliminary data shared by local volunteer coordinator Jessica Griffiths. That’s the most counted in San Luis Obispo County in more than 20 years—in 1998 there were about 182,000 counted, according to the Xerces Society’s data. The numbers are giving some researchers hope that the western monarch butterfly population could be rebounding from devastatingly low numbers a few years ago that left some worrying the insect was on the verge of extinction.

Arizona’s state butterfly, the two-tailed swallowtail butterfly, can be found at Tucson-area botanical gardens. Credit: Jeff Oliver/University Libraries

Botanical gardens are ‘hot spots’ for butterflies amid climate change: Despite their relatively small footprint in urban areas, botanical gardens are important hotspots for butterfly biodiversity in the arid Southwest, according to a new study by University of Arizona scientists published in the journal Insects. Using more than 10,500 community science observations spanning roughly 20 years, researchers compared butterfly species richness and diversity in botanical gardens versus in the gardens’ surrounding metropolitan areas. The study focused on five large, urban cities in the Southwest, including Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona; Palm Desert, California; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and El Paso, Texas. Each city averages less than 11 inches of precipitation annually and, with the exception of Palm Desert, each has a population over 500,000 residents. While botanical gardens represent less than 1% of metropolitan landscapes—between 0.002–0.22% on average—these urban green areas have disproportionately high butterfly species richness and diversity compared to the much larger surrounding city areas. In fact, species richness in these gardens scored in the 86th percentile or above, according to the study.

Screen grab from YouTube video.

These bumblebees like playing and it’s the sweetest thing: Playing is an important behavior in humans — it helps us learn new skills, improve control over our bodies, and also helps with bonding. In other mammals, play has also been documented as an important behavior — but in insects, playing has been far less studied. For Lars Chittka, a behavioral ecologist at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), peering into the minds of bees has been a long-term interest. Chittka recently published a book called the Mind of a Bee, where he highlights many of the remarkable findings about the intellect and behavior of bees. But this new study came almost by accident. Chittka and his team were looking at how bumblebees learn complex behaviors. In a scientific setup, bees had to move wooden balls, and if they moved them to the right place, they got a sweet reward. But the researchers started noticing how some bees would just push the balls around even without any reward. This was puzzling, so the researchers started looking at this in more detail. The study followed 45 bumblebees in an arena who chose between walking through an unobstructed, clear path and reaching a feeding area and deviating from this path to fiddle with wooden balls. There was no advantage to rolling the balls, and there is no analogue behavior in the wild that would prompt bees to roll the balls. Still, all individual bees rolled the balls between 1 and 117 times — a strikingly large number that strongly suggests the bees found pleasure in this activity. Note article includes 1:30 video from the BBC that shows the bees playing with wooden balls. (See also: First-ever study shows bumble bees ‘play’)

Screen grab from YouTube video showing leafhopper baby “Mildred” in her new dress.

True Facts: Leafhoppers and Friends

This 5-minute video features stunning macro shots of tiny leafhopper  babies with scientifically accurate and hysterically funny commentary. You’ll never look at leafhoppers quite the same way again! Thanks to reader Carol English for sharing.

Citizen Science Humour

Can Plants “See”?

Image from Googly Eyes Gardener – Saturday Night Live.

Plant science is endlessly fascinating and I often think we can learn as much from the controversies as for the so-called settled science. Below are two articles that explore a very controversial topic – can plants “see”. While biomimicry in plants is well known and well documented, the controversy arises on the question of whether plants have organs that actually allow them to “see” as our eyes allow us to see. The pro argument is based on recent work initiated by a citizen scientist in Utah and supported by several European researchers. Linda Chalker Scott presents the con argument in The Garden Professors Blog.

Can Plants See? In the Wake of a Controversial Study, the Answer’s Still Unclear: A tiny pilot study found that so-called chameleon vines mimicked plastic leaves, but experts say poor study design and conflicts of interest undermine the report. The vine Boquila trifoliolata is a shapeshifter. As it winds its way through the Chilean rainforest, its leaves change to resemble those of the plants it uses for support or, sometimes, neighbors it isn’t in contact with. It does such a good job of pretending to be other plants that although the vine was first described in the 1800s, its talent for impersonation remained secret until only about a decade ago. In the early 2010s, Ernesto Gianoli, a plant ecologist with the University of La Serena in Chile, realized that what appeared to be a strange-looking stem from a tree was in fact a B. trifoliata vine, the leaves of which perfectly blended in with the tree’s actual leaves. Once he saw that, he spotted the vine mimicking all sorts of plants—more than 20 species so far—by tweaking the size, shape, and color of its leaves. Gianoli reported his findings in a 2014 Current Biology paper, but to this day, no one is certain how B. trifoliolata pulls off its impressive masquerades. Most recently, he discovered microbiome similarities between the mimicking vines and their models, hinting that bacteria could be involved. But in a paper published online in Plant Signaling and Behavior, citizen scientist Jacob White and University of Bonn graduate student Felipe Yamashita claim to have found evidence for a different hypothesis: that the vines can “see” other plants’ leaves, at least well enough to copy their looks. Some found these results thrilling, while others were deeply critical. White, a homemaker in Utah with a passion for science and plants but with no formal scientific training, says he got the idea for the study after reading about the eye-spots of Chlamydomonas algae and the lens-like cells of certain cyanobacteria. he came across a 2016 mini-review by University of Bonn plant physiologist František Baluška and University of Florence plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso suggesting that plants have eye-like structures that afford them a form of vision. He read about botanist Gottlieb Haberlandt’s 1905 hypothesis that the upper epidermal cells of leaves may function as simple eyes (ocelli)—and about B. trifoliolata’s touchless mimicry. To eliminate the hypotheses about B. trifoliolata’s mimicry hinging on the transfer of biological compounds, he paired a B. trifoliolata plant with a fake for it to grow on. Lo and behold, he says he observed what appeared to be an attempt by the vine to mimic the fake leaves as it grew up the artificial plant. In correspondence, Baluška suggested he try a fake plant that looks more like something that could be found in Chile. White did, and the vine seemed to mimic it as well. The balance of this longish article details White’s further experiments, and critiques from peer reviewers.

The plants have eyes! Another foray into B(ad) S(cience): The article found here reports on the ability of leaves to mimic other leaves. While the concept of leaf mimicry is not new and has been seen in agricultural weeds for decades, this article goes a step further in claiming that plants can actually see the leaves they are to meant to mimic. But let’s back up a bit to explore leaf mimicry, which is a thing. Leaf mimicry serves to protect plants against herbivory and other types of removal (like weeding). This phenomenon was reported decades ago where agricultural weeds were shown to change their morphology to more closely resemble the desired crop. The benefit is obvious: if a weed looks like a crop plant, it is unlikely to be removed through hand weeding. Likewise, if a weed resembles a poisonous plant, herbivores that are visual learners will avoid these weeds. When some plants of a species are disproportionately allowed to survive (i.e., not eaten or removed), they reproduce better. Higher reproductive capacity means more offspring: this is the process of natural selection. We can even see this in dandelions in our lawns and gardens. Dr. Scott notes a number of clues that we’re dealing with bad science. There are a lot of problems with this paper; it would take me a separate blog post to critique the Materials and Methods section alone. But the biggest red flag for me was the following paragraph:

Each plant was assigned a number and placed on a growing rack. Two artificial vines were placed above the plants on a wooden trellis. During the winter, the plants grew quickly through the leaves showed poor mimicry of the artificial plants leaves. The original plant that we had did not show good evidence of mimicry until the spring and summer. We decided to continue the experiment and see if there were better results in the warmer months.

This reflects significant author bias: the experiment didn’t work in the winter, so they did it in the spring and summer to see if they got results they liked better. And apparently they did. Other potential red flags that careful readers might note include: a lead author with no apparent connection to an academic institution; a journal (Plant Signaling and Behavior) that focuses on the questionable field of “plant neuroscience”; an experiment performed under vague and uncontrolled conditions; and typos, grammatical errors, and awkward writing throughout.

As a counterpoint to her criticism, Dr. Scott includes this link to a wonderful video featuring the late, great Christopher Walken.