I’ve been working on Penstemon digitalis for a long time now. I first met the plant as a starting PhD student looking for a new system to make my own. I wanted something local (to Ithaca, NY), a plant that was dependent on pollinators with pre-dispersal seed predators (those are insects that lay eggs in the fruit and the young larvae eat the seeds). I wanted to study conflicting selection on floral traits by mutualists and antagonists, not what my dissertation ended up being about but that is a story for another day. In my search for a species to work with, I also wanted something with larger seeds than Lobelia siphilitica that I had just spent my masters cursing over and to be taller than Collinsia parviflora that I broke my back over during my undergrad.
Anyway, I had some criteria and questions and I settled on Penstemon digitalis, not knowing that I would still be here over a decade later pondering this seemingly simple plant. Now I know a lot about this species and I have even more questions than I began with. My own PhD student, now Dr Rosie, also knows a whole lot about this particular species and I’m sure our knowledge isn’t completely overlapping. You tend to pick up things in the field and back at the lab that don’t ever end up in papers. And we’re not the only scientists that have studied the ‘foxglove beardtongue’ by far. I have about 40 papers in my library that have used P. digitalis in their studies in some way. Many make it the star of the show but others use it in a community of plant species to address different questions. Sufficed to say there is a large body of knowledge on this humble plant and it is only one plant of many.
Here’s the Wikipedia page for Penstemon digitalis:
A collection of a few basic facts is what many people would find from searching for information on this species. It isn’t unusual. Search any of your favourite study organisms and you’ll probably find similarly sparse pages (especially if they are plants). Of course there are other pages out there as well but in general you won’t find the details that make there way into academic papers on any of these pages.
It has got me thinking whether we as scientists make our knowledge available to the public on forms such as Wikipedia. The idea has been in my mind for a while. Years ago I had a discussion with a colleague who thought it was unethical to write pages that cite your own work. That gave me pause and surprised me. If you don’t do it who will? The Penstemon digitalis page has basically remained the same since I began studying the plant and Penstemons are somewhat popular garden plants rather than an obscure weed.
The average person doesn’t have access to all the papers on my study species, let alone the patience to sort through them. We usually summarized the information for the study system in the methods (or introduction) depending on the paper but much of the information remains bound up in literature that isn’t easily accessed by non-academics.
There are a lot of cool stories to tell about these plants (oh, and I suppose animals too!). I could tell you about how P. digitalis has really cool scent variation within the flower with different parts smelling of different scents. I could also talk about the variation in purple stripes on the corolla that we see among plants, stripes that are black under UV and therefore should act as bold signs to the pollinators visiting them, but that so far we haven’t seen any preference for the main bumblebee visitor to flowers with or without stripes. The colour variation is somewhat of a mystery although I continue to quantify it in case we can figure out what is going on with this trait one day. I could tell you more stories about this one species then you’d probably care to hear. My papers tell some of those stories but the average person wanting to learn about their garden flowers would have no idea that these stories even existed.
So should we make more of an effort to share the stories of our species?
One worry I do have is that Wikipedia pages are written often like a collection of facts. Some observations of P. digitalis are facts while others are the ecology I observed at a particular time and place. I think a challenge to do any editing of pages is to convey the difference between the two. I observed natural selection on floral scent, which was a really exciting result, but it doesn’t mean there always is, even in the populations I work in. A scientist reading the original source paper wouldn’t assume that we were saying this is a truth but rather a result. But I think with some crafting of the text, we could improve the information readily available for the species we work with.
Perhaps people could grow to be more appreciative of the natural world around them if they knew more about it. I think the problem is especially true for plants. They are often thought of as inanimate objects instead of interactors in their own right.
I’m not sure Wikipedia is the best source to share information about species with the general public, but I do know it seems to be the first stop for many searching for information. What if the species pages told more than the bare minimum of facts found in a field guide?
The one question I keep circling back to is: If we don’t tell their stories, who will?