Thursday, August 18, 2016

Lichen or Moss - that is the hard question... also for science editors

It appears that New Scientist needs to rename their recent story " Without oxygen from ancient moss you wouldn’t be alive today" to something more like "Without oxygen from lichens you wouldn’t be alive today", based on their featured image. The story was posted on their website on a few days ago, and features new research findings of how the earliest land plants (bryophytes/mosses) helped put oxygen in the atmosphere; here is the webpage: 
Screenshot from New Scientist website (link) by, 18 Aug 2016. Fair use.
The story is based on a very interesting paper in PNAS by Timothy Lenton and colleagues at Exeter University.  A science writer probably wrote up the text, but along came a photo editor, who went to a stockphoto gallery, in this case Getty images, to find a suitable image.  And he/she selected a lichen, not a moss, since that 'moss' is what the photographer had written in the description. Nobody appears to have checked with the authors of the paper or any other botanists if the image was suitable or correct.  (My advice for scientists is to always provide your own images for news stories, for exactly this reason.)
Screenshot from Getty Images by on 18 August 2016 of 
'Close-Up of Moss on Rocks' photo (link), featuring a lichen, not a moss. Fair use.
The bushy, light-colored lichens of the genus Cladonia shown above (also known as reindeer lichens and many other names) are seemingly perpetually misidentified and mislabeled as mosses, I have written about this elsewhere here on the blog.
White lichens, green mosses, and Swedish Christmas...
Reindeer moss is a lichen, not a moss

So how to avoid mistakes like this? It would be very helpful if stock photo companies demanded accurate descriptions of photos, and if media checked the images with the people that know, not the least the authors of the paper that is featured.  I can just imagine their frustration and possible horror to have their bryophyte story illustrated with a photo of a lichen, especially since there are so many gorgeous moss photos.  

PS.  Thanks to TT who notified me of this mistake, which hopefully will be corrected by the New Scientist editors very soon.
PS2. UPDATE: The photo is now corrected in the article in New Scientist.