Experts urge for more diversity in emoji representation of fungi and flatworms.
In 2021, Stefano Mammola and Francesco Ficetola attended an ecology conference in Prague where they encountered a scientist who had a unique grievance. Jennifer Anderson, a specialist in aquatic fungi, expressed her disappointment that there were no emojis representing her research subject.
According to Anderson, a microbial ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, utilizing graphics can effectively convey the importance of saving 🐳 in a relatable manner. When working towards conservation efforts of aquatic fungi, it is crucial to first inform people of their existence and describe their appearance, which is typically different from that of mushrooms.
After being impressed by their discussion with Anderson and concerned about the disregard for unique species, Mammola and Ficetola teamed up with a coworker to investigate the representation of the “tree of life” in the emoji collection. The results, according to the Italian ecologists, were very poor.
According to Mammola, an ecologist at the Water Research Institute of the National Research Council of Italy, our research confirms a common bias in the study of biodiversity that is rooted in human psychology. It appears that we tend to feel more empathy towards organisms that are closely related to us on the phylogenetic tree.
Emojis are a simple, colourful and direct way of communicating online. The researchers found that animals were well-represented by available emojis but plants, fungi and microorganisms were not.
The team published a study in the journal iScience on Monday, where they found emojis that represent 112 different organisms. These include 92 animals, 16 plants, one fungus resembling a toadstool, and a potential gut-infecting bacteria called E coli.
Mammola stated that using social media to depict the tree of life can effectively spread the message that biodiversity encompasses more than just popular animals like cats, dogs, lions, and pandas. He emphasized that there is a vast array of organisms that all have a crucial impact on our planet, including those that are less familiar to us.
The scientists organized all nature and animal emojis from Emojipedia, an online collection, and discovered that certain groups of animals were not included. While there are over 20,000 types of flatworms documented by scientists, there is currently no emoji that accurately portrays this soft-bodied creature in digital communication.
Even though there are over 1 million known species of arthropods, they only account for 16% of the animal emojis. This is compared to vertebrates, which have fewer than 100,000 described species. Some emojis, like bald eagles and giant pandas, represent specific species while others, such as ants and crocodiles, only represent a broader group like a genus or family.
The scientists stated that the imbalances in the use of animal emojis reflect the existing imbalances in evaluating biodiversity and conservation efforts, such as those seen in the IUCN red list of endangered species.
Mammola suggests that a more comprehensive representation may spark interest in unfamiliar organisms and ultimately aid conservation efforts. He proposes adding 20 to 30 additional emojis to represent important, yet currently missing, organisms, which would be a low-cost solution. This expansion could provide a greater understanding of the vastness of biodiversity.
Scientists are using images instead of words on their phone keyboards to represent their research. Andrew White, a computational chemist, proposed a protein emoji last year after conducting a survey on X (formerly known as Twitter) to gather opinions from structural biologists on its appearance. However, the committee responsible for selecting emojis, which includes representatives from companies like Apple, Meta, and Microsoft, declined the proposal.
According to White’s article in the journal Nature, DNA is known as the code for life, while proteins are the active players in life. White suggests that a protein emoji would be beneficial for communicating about science, much like how the DNA emoji has become a symbol for progress in genomics and sequencing.
The Italian team of researchers discovered that the variety of emojis depicting animals has been on the rise. According to their findings, the number of different animal taxa has increased from 45 in 2015 to 92 in 2022, indicating a more accurate representation of animal diversity over time.
The findings contrast sharply with the state of wildlife in the real world. A landmark review of research in 2019 found that nature was declining at rates unprecedented in human history, and that species were being wiped out faster and faster.
Anderson stated that she desired emojis to represent organisms like aquatic fungi in order to showcase the growing public recognition and highlight their ecological significance. She mentioned, “The presence of an emoji signifies that an organism holds value and is significant enough to be included in everyday discussions.”