There’s nothing Internet users like better than correcting an expert they think is wrong. So when botanist Professor Chris Martine of Bucknell University put the wrong name on a plant he’d photographed, it got a swift response. In the end, it led to the discovery of an unexpected population of one of America’s rarest plants, and a chance to protect something that otherwise might have been lost.

Martine is certainly knowledgeable about botany. He runs a Youtube series called Plants are Cool, Too! in the hope of spreading his enthusiasm. In the course of filming an episode, he went looking for golden corydalis, a small endangered flower, on the Shikellamy Bluffs, Pennsylvania, whose 110-meter (360-foot) sandstone cliffs make the site a haven for species suffering human intervention elsewhere.

During the search, Martine photographed a Heuchera flower being fertilized by a bumblebee and put the image on Twitter. Martine described the flower as H. americana, one of the more common of the 43 members of the genus of evergreen herbaceous plants. Confirming the quickest way to get information online is often not to ask a question, but to post a mistake and wait for people to correct you, Martine was informed by fellow botany enthusiasts that the plant actually belonged to the species H. alba.

Normally such confusion between two members of the same genus wouldn’t really matter, but H. alba has never previously been confirmed in Pennsylvania. Moreover, the attractive little flower is down to some 1,500 plants in what were thought to be its only habitats in Virginia and West Virginia, many of the sites for proposed housing developments. 

As discussion of the discovery spread, Martine and colleagues took another look at specimens collected from outcrops of the cliffs that can only be reached by serious climbers. They found botanists had been misidentifying H. alba flowers for more than 100 years. So far seven new populations of the flower have been identified in Pennsylvania, with the discoveries announced in Phytokeys.

That’s great news for the chances of preserving the endangered species, but also important to know. The chance discovery will enable conservation projects to protect the flowers, which might otherwise have been casually destroyed.

“Importantly, this discovery is not just a cool showcase for how science and modern communications outlets can work together, it also gave us key information on the status of H. alba that can guide future conservation efforts,” said Martine in a statement

Although small in number, the more northerly H. alba populations may have a better chance of surviving climate change than those at previously known locations.

At a time when scandals like Cambridge Analytica are highlighting the dark side of social media, it’s nice to see it used for good.

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