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Scientists call for greater emoji biodiversity

Emojis are now such a key part of our language that ecologists from the University of Milan believe more variation could help generate interest in lesser-known organisms – and encourage conversations around conservation.

A team of ecologists from the University of Milan recently conducted the world’s most comprehensive survey on the flora and fauna of Emojipedia, the global catalogue of pictograms recognised by the international Unicode Standard.

They concluded that there was not enough emoji representation for flowers and flora compared to other subject matter.

For example, while there are millions of fungi species, the official emoji library only has one: Amanita Muscaria, the red-capped, white-spotted mushroom. There are a staggering 180,000 species of lepidoptera, yet their lone emoji avatar is a generic blue butterfly that isn’t actually all that common.

As Stefano Mammola and his team discovered, although current emojis represent a fairly wide range of animals, there aren’t that many plants, insects, or microorganisms.

This became clear after they divided every emoji related to nature into a specific category and found that there are a total of 112 emojis of distinct organisms – 92 animals, 16 plants, one fungus, and one microorganism.

They concluded that within the animal kingdom, vertebrates were overrepresented and arthropods were underrepresented.

Additionally, annelids (worms and leeches) weren’t represented until 2020, cnidarians until 2021, and there are still no emojis representing nematodes or platyhelminths.

‘A good online representation of the tree of life can help disseminate the message that biodiversity is much more than just cats, dogs, lions and pandas,’ says Mammola. ‘There’s an impressive number of organisms, and all of them play a fundamental role for our planet, even the ones we know less.’

In other words, we’re focusing too much on the cute and fluffy, and overlooking some of the uglier, but no less important, parts of the natural world.

‘In our increasingly digitised society, we should not underestimate the potential of emojis to raise awareness and foster appreciation for the diversity of life on Earth,’ reads the research, which was published in iScience.

@newscientist Could your emoji use be contributing to declining biodiversity? 🦍🐋🐙🕷️ There are at least a million species currently at risk of extinction, yet very little life on Earth is represented in emoji form, leaving scientists wondering what the cultural impact of that could be. @scienceformymum explores how better representation of lesser-known organisms could help biodiversity efforts. Tap link in bio to learn more #biodiversity, #animals, #emoji, #science, #learnontiktok, #sciencefacts ♬ original sound – New Scientist

‘An ever-updating catalogue would help people discuss a range of biodiversity-related topics and sentiments more effectively, beyond the icons depicting iconic species.’

Essentially, because pictograms now form such a key part of our modern use of text language (one in five messages posted on X alone contain an emoji), a more varied number to choose from could help to encourage conversations around conservation.

With people constantly on their devices, ensuring emoji biodiversity would raise awareness about unknown species – and efforts to save them.

‘Communication is the first step. If people are aware that organisms exist, they start to appreciate them. And it’s much easier to communicate the importance of conserving them,’ says co-author Francesco Ficetola, a professor in environmental science and policy at UNIMI.

‘The conservation of biodiversity can only progress with the participation and support of the society at large.’