Seeing the wood for the trees

What is plant blindness?

Take a moment to look at the image below and think about what you see. If the first thing you saw was a giraffe on a cloudy day, you might be suffering from a phenomenon known as plant blindness. That giraffe is but one of hundreds of individual, and equally important, organisms pictured in this species-rich savannah mosaic.

A species-rich savannah (đź“· Credit)

Plant blindness is a term coined by botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler to describe the inability to “see or notice the plants in one’s own environment” and “recognise the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs”. This phenomenon is complex and multi-faceted, and influenced by a number of factors. These range from an evolutionary pre-disposition for filtering out “backgrounds” in order to better-see potential danger, to plants being under-represented in the schooling system’s biology curriculum. In the South African system children only receive 22 hours of plant-related biology education between grade R and grade 9, and this has real-world implications from both a conservation and agrofood system perspective.

The disparities in conservation funding and attention are well documented, with conventionally charismatic animal species (such as the above giraffe) receiving disproportionately more resources than their less show-worthy counterparts. And yet, despite being the cornerstone of all ecosystems, plant species receive less than a fraction of the focus that even the most unassuming animal species receive. South Africa, as the third-most biodiverse country in the world, has over 2500 plant species at threat of extinction. As a society, we will never conserve what we don’t value, and we rarely value something we don’t see. Social media has been a powerful tool for conservation science communication to raise awareness of South Africa’s floral biodiversity through campaigns such as the Botanical Society of South Africa’s #FloralFriday series. One of the successes of is that most people would instantly understand the importance of conserving these species and their ecosystems. What I think is less common knowledge is how the conservation of these species is so important to the future of the agrofood system. In 2018 I wanted to see if my friends were aware of how many plant species they rely on in their daily lives, and used this in a short video on plant blindness that I made for a science communications course.

Ending plant blindness is as much about seeing the plants around us as it is in recognising the way we use plants in our daily lives. Food is the most obvious contribution, but plant-based susbtances and materials can be found in almost everything we use. Conserving our native species is invaluable as they act as a reserve for unique genes and phytochemicals, but this is one step in a much larger process and these plants will rely on an extensive network of plant and soil scientists to get them into your daily life. Throughout my undergrad I constantly had my degree, a BScAgric in Applied Plant and Soil Sciences, jokingly referred to as BSc Gardening. While I still find the humour in this, and absolutely do love gardening as a hobby, the joke does reflect how little most people understand about the complexity of the agrofood system that supports them. Plant production is not just about planting a few seeds and hoping for the best, but about unpacking and optimising complex living systems. We face a severe shortage of young scientists in the industry and, although social media is making it more accessible for the public to see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing plants, plant blindness still affects student’s awareness of career opportunities in the industry. This is not only careers working directly with plants, but avenues such as soil chemistry and irrigation biophysics as well.

We need bright, passionate minds to keep our agrofood system resilient and diverse in the face of climate change. For any budding young scientists reading this still exploring their career options, take a look at some of the possibilities in the plant and soil sciences and don’t hesitate to reach out to scientists on social media!


What’s the worst that could happen?

By Keafon Jumbam

Kea tracking

I stroll into the field, locate my target animal instantly, keep it company for two hours, collect data and move on to the pups at the den, collecting extensive data on maternal care. This is how things should work. In reality however, things get a little more interesting. On several occasions I have tracked down an individual, heard the loud beeps from my telemetry receiver signaling that this individual is nearby, “called” it for hours, and ended up throwing in the towel because, oh well, it didn’t show up. And the pups? Well, we’ve had only one breeding couple so far, and time’s ticking by: I have only one more breeding season left before I have to write up my thesis! Fieldwork demands quite a bit of determination and grit, because there are so many factors out of your control.

And fieldwork, theoretically, calls for emotional detachment. We are scientists, after all, and need to collect data without tainting it with our soppy sentimentality. But, like most ecologists, I get emotionally involved in the lives and personalities of the batties. This, in fact, keeps me going – it’s easier to spend long, dark nights in the field if you’re genuinely curious about the lives of these wild animals. Without a bit of passion for the batties, I’d never make it.

Luckily, it’s easy to get emotionally involved in the lives of batties. Take the couple Aristotle (or Ari) and Scruffy for instance – Ari is notably the most abusive husband we have come across in the field.

Scrawny but feisty -- Scruffy!
Scrawny but feisty — Scruffy!

His temper tantrums often lead him into nasty fights with Scruffy, be it over raisins or simply out of irritation at her presence. Interestingly, she never gave up on him – for better or worse, batty style! Named after her sick appearance (literally speaking), she was the scrawniest of all batties I had laid eyes on, with a large and rapidly expanding bald patch around her neck and shoulders. But boy oh boy, are looks deceiving! She was easily the feistiest of all female batties, leaving me completely drained of energy with her fast pace and quick disappearing acts behind thorn bushes. In fact, I secretly wished she would pass out for a while so I could catch my breath.

Ari about his business.
Ari about his business.

And this is where emotional detachment would have been helpful. I remember quite vividly the last evening I spent with her and for the first time ever, she took me on a stroll, limping and stopping ever so often to rest underneath bushes. She could barely forage for food and was in a lot of pain. Our normal two hour data session only lasted thirty minutes before she disappeared into a den for the rest of the night. I anxiously waited for the worse the following day and sure enough by midday, we received a panicked call from a meerkat-project volunteer that a very sick batty had been spotted around. That would be the last time I see Scruffy again.

It doesn’t get any worse than that, does it?