In June of last year, botany Twitter made a pretty big discovery. Rather than squabbling about politics or sharing ridiculous memes, botany Twitter actually made a contribution to science.
It all started when Professor Chris Martine shared a photo of a bumblebee on what he thought was a common North American wildflower, American alumroot (Heuchera americana).
— Dr. Chris Martine (@MartineBotany) June 9, 2017
Social Media Meets Science
But the botanist and his team weren’t looking at American alumroot at all. Pretty soon, Dr. Martine’s Twitter followers – also known as botany Twitter – jumped in. Ryan Folk, a botanist from the Florida Museum of Natural History, corrected Dr. Martine.
The plant wasn’t the common American alumroot. It was a close relative, the ultra-rare white alumroot (Heuchera alba). So far, no one knew that this little flower grew in the state of Pennsylvania at all.
The two scientists called in a third, Scott Schuette. Schuette is a botanist with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Schuette didn’t confirm the identification over Twitter, rather asking Dr. Martine to double-check the species.
If Ryan Folk was right, this could be a big deal for the rare species.
Old-School Science Confirms Social Media’s Hunch
At this point, the story veers away from modern science, which mixes social media and citizen science with field biology. In order to confirm the identification of the plant for sure, Dr. Martine had to consult a “herbarium specimens.”
There’s nothing high-tech about an “herbarium specimens.” Rather than using an app to identify plants, Dr. Martine would rely on a dried-out specimen of white alumroot. An “herbarium specimens” acts like a dictionary of sorts, allowing scientists to compare the plant in their hands to a confirmed version of the species.
In this case, Twitter was right. The plant that Dr. Martine had spotted during his expedition was not just another common wildflower. It was actually the super-rare white alumroot.
Aside from just being really cool, this discovery is a big deal for the conservation of white alumroot. When a species is at risk of extinction, discovering a whole new population can make the difference between survival and extinction. Dr. Martine’s discovery adds needed genetic diversity and sheer numbers to the overall population of white alumroot.
When Dr. Martine went through the records at the herbarium, he discovered four other samples of white alumroot from Pennsylvania near where he’d discovered the white alumroot. These specimens had been incorrectly identified as well, showing just how hard it can be to identify plants properly.
Botany Twitter Writes a Paper
About a year later, the entire crew of Dr. Martine, Ryan Folk, and Scott Schuette got together. They published a paper in the scientific journal PhytoKeys on their discovery and the subsequent official “range extension” of white alumroot.
As the scientists wrote in their paper in PhytoKeys, this is “an example of what can happen when botanists embrace a combination of modern and classical approaches to discovery and collaboration.”
Even if you don’t get the chance to discover a rare plant in your hometown or find an arsenic-removing moss, it’s easier than ever to use modern approaches to biology in your life. Apps like PlantSnap make it easy to identify plants around your home and while exploring. Pair it with other great apps for hiking and a bit of ethnobotany, and you never know what you might discover!
If you find a plant that doesn’t seem to make sense where it is, now you know who to tag in your Twitter post!