Science Twitter and the Secretly Super-rare Saxifragaceae
Top Image: a figure from “The hidden Heuchera: How science Twitter uncovered a globally imperiled species in Pennsylvania, USA”
During one of the coolest experiences of my PhD, I had the opportunity to work as a field assistant on a flora for an iconic park in Maine. The Plants of Baxter State Park is a beautiful book and, if you turn to page 135, there’s a stunning photograph of a carpet of Empetrum atropurpureum, red crowberry — okay, full disclosure it’s my photograph. Reflecting on my small contributions to this wonderful book, I remember the sunburns, the crystal clear ponds, the apple cider doughnuts, the black flies, the incredibly cushy shower in one of our crew cabins, and the incredible love I developed for this rugged, cut-over landscape. These expansive memories are tied up in 477 printed pages that sit in a place of honor on my desk. The flora is a snapshot of a place and time: Baxter State Park in 2016. It is already outdated; when I returned to Baxter in Spring 2018 for new research, I heard from the rangers that hikers and botanists had recently found a population of a species we thought was lost from the park —it was in a new, downslope location from its historical site.
The limitations of published flora — and the fun of the internet — have led some 21st century botanists to embrace new, technologically innovative tools. In one outstanding example, YouTube, twitter, and iNaturalist played a major role in the discovery of a globally imperiled plant species in Pennsylvania. Dr. Scott Schuette and coauthors published this finding in a paper that merges social media with early 20th century herbarium specimens, and a gorgeously produced YouTube series with a serious NatureServe Conservation Rank Assessment. They write: “This discovery may also serve as a cautionary tale of relying entirely for plant identification on floras which, through no fault of their own, become incomplete or ‘static’ over time.”
“The hidden Heuchera: How science Twitter uncovered a globally imperiled species in Pennsylvania, USA,” published in PhytoKeys in April 2018, is the peer-reviewed version of corresponding author Dr. Chris Martine’s March 2018 YouTube video “Rappelling Scientists Find Rare Species Hiding for 100+ Years.” If you need a break from #365papers, if your ‘To Read’ folder is overflowing with pdfs, if you lost your reading glasses — seriously, it’s summer vacay, you don’t need an excuse — watch the video!
The episode starts as a quest to re-locate a historical population of the state-endangered plant golden corydalis. Martine, a professor at Bucknell and host of the YouTube series Plants Are Cool, Too! interviews Schuette while botanists in climbing gear rappel down the shale cliff faces of Shikellamy Bluffs above the Susequehanna River*.
After three days, they finally locates the elusive golden corydalis by climbing up from the base of the bluffs. Martine and Schuette shake hands in a classic wrap up scene. And then — record-scratch sound effect, the frame freezes and tilts, and a voiceover exclaims, “normally this is where our episode would end, but this story took another amazing turn…” Martine flashes back to stills from earlier in the episode and sports-commentator-style circles a Saxifragaceae species with coral bell-shaped flowers that had blended into the background as the climbers searched for golden corydalis.
Throughout the survey, the team — and Martine on twitter — had identified this as the common plant Heuchera americana, American alumroot. A tweet reply from Heuchera expert Dr. Ryan Folk revealed their common plant was very, very uncommon. It was Heuchera alba, a globally imperiled wildflower, endemic to the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia — a plant never before recorded in Pennsylvania. Ultimately, Schuette, Folk, Martine, and coauthor Dr. Jason Cantley found eight populations of H. alba in Pennsylvania, as well as historical evidence that the plant had been there, hidden, for at least a century. When they re-examined herbarium specimens of the two known Pennsylvania Heuchera species, they found four specimens collected between 1905 and 1949 that were actually H. alba.
One of those specimens — housed in Bucknell’s Wayne E. Manning Herbarium — was collected at Shikellamy Bluffs in 1946.
By W. Manning.
Even the guy who got the herbarium named after himself missed this identification! As the paper title notes, the credit goes to “Science twitter,” a resource that Manning unfortunately did not have when he was botanizing the Shikellamy Bluffs.
I asked Schuette and Martine about their social media habits. While all of the paper’s authors had met IRL (in real life), the Plants Are Cool, Too! episode and twitter conversation around H. alba sparked this research through virtual collaboration. Martine says, “I use Twitter nearly every day and see it as part of my job as a scientist and academic. It is my go-to source for keeping up with the latest findings in my disciplines and the most pressing issues in higher education.” Schuette admits that his twitter check-ins were less frequent, “butcertainly picked up a bit after the H. alba discovery.” Schuette is active on iNaturalist — parallel to Martine’s twitter mis-identification, Schuette had a similar social-media moment when his iNaturalist post of a Heuchera in Pennsylvania turned out to be H. alba. He explains, “I started on iNaturalist when I started my position with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. I viewed my work as a great opportunity to share the diversity that I see on a day to day basis with the larger naturalist community.” Both Schuette and Martine work in Pennsylvania and their standard botanical reference, the Plants of Pennsylvania flora, lists H. americana and H. pubescens as the only Heuchera species present in the state. Earlier botanists were working under the same assumptions, no one expected to find H. alba in the state — the difference is that in 1946 you couldn’t upload your herbarium specimen to a network of naturalists across a broad geographic range and receive instant feedback on your identification.
“I just saw a Tweet from a scientist saying that she had been told by a senior colleague that “no one who matters” is using Twitter. That is totally false, of course, but I would also say that we are fast approaching a time where it might even be more true to say the opposite: Everyone who matters is using Twitter. They are equally silly statements, really, but my point is that on-line communities like Twitter are now where scientists do a lot of their networking, sharing, and, as shown by our study, collaborating. If you ain’t there, you are missing out.”
Schuette echoes this perspective on the great potential for social media in scientific research:
“I think that as field botanists we are constrained by the prevailing taxonomic concepts of the times and places where we work. However with the immense availability of information through online databases and social media outlets, we are in a unique position in history to really increase our understanding of biodiversity at several different scales ranging from local parks to EPA Ecoregions. The fact that H. albahas been here under our noses raises some really interesting biodiversity questions that we can now explore in detail.”
Finally, I just loved that they were able to name-check “science twitter” in the title of a peer-reviewed paper. I asked if they had received any pushback from the journal. I didn’t know anything about PhytoKeys before this paper appeared in my own twitter feed; for the similarly uninitiated, it is “a peer-reviewed, open access, rapidly published journal, launched to accelerate research and free information exchange in taxonomy, phylogeny, biogeography and evolution of plants.” Martine assured me that it was a smooth process; he had experience publishing new species descriptions in the journal and he had a hunch it would be a good fit for the paper. He says, “In working with [PhytoKeys] I have come to appreciate how progressive they are when it comes to promoting their articles online, including via social media – so we weren’t especially surprised when they accepted our title. Personally, I think it was the smart thing to do!” The metrics on PhytoKeys’ website show that the article has received over 670 unique views and 153 pdf downloads. Martine and Schuette agree that the social media buzz around the paper has been positive and congratulatory. As Martine notes, “people who believe in social media as a way to engage with both the public and one’s broader scientific community see it as a confirmation; meanwhile, even people who might poo-poo Twitter as a waste of time for scientists have to admit that it led to a pretty cool discovery in this case.”
Schuette S, Folk RA, Cantley JT, Martine CT (2018) The hidden Heuchera: How science Twitter uncovered a globally imperiled species in Pennsylvania, USA. PhytoKeys 96: 87-97. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.96.23667
*I do love rock-climbing botanists!