Reconstructing and portraying the ancestral flower of angiosperms as a single image: lessons learned from a successful media story

Jürg Schönenberger, Hervé Sauquet, Anna Maria Louise von Balthazar-Schönenberger, Susana Magallon

Carefully selected images often play a crucial role in making scientific stories successful both in the traditional press and on social media platforms. On August 1st, 2017, we published an article presenting the reconstructed flower of the most recent common ancestor of all angiosperms. We deliberately chose to depict our results as a three-dimensional color model to reach out and attract public interest to our study. We opted for showing this single model despite the uncertainty remaining for some traits and the fact that we did not estimate others (e.g., size, shape, and color). We received massive attention from the media worldwide (>130 independent stories in 35 countries). Here, we review this experience one year later, summarizing some important points relating to the perception of deep-time evolutionary research by the public. The most important difficulty encountered by journalists and the general public was our reluctance to name examples of living flowers that most resemble our reconstructed ancestral flower. We consistently refrained from offering such comparisons in order to avoid revival of pre-phylogenetic thinking about evolution. Despite this, many journalists and colleagues have focused on our 3D image to make claims about its resemblance to living magnolias, water lilies, or lotus flowers. However, we argue that the risk of this image was well worth taking as it helped attract attention to important facts about flowering plants and evolution: (1) all living flowers ultimately derive from a single ancestor, (2) the ancestral flower was bisexual and so are most living flowers, (3) it is possible to go back in past and make inferences on ancestral features using a method called ancestral state reconstruction. This and many other recent successful media stories confirm that evolutionary biologists can play an important and positive role in public outreach by actively working with the media.

Department of Botany and Biodiversity Research
External organisation(s)
Université Paris XI - Paris-Sud, National Herbarium of New South Wales, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico
Publication date
Austrian Fields of Science 2012
106042 Systematic botany, 106008 Botany, 106012 Evolutionary research
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