Results of pan-European cowslip flower observation surprising

A meadow full of cowslips (Primula veris)
A meadow full of cowslips (Primula veris) Source: "Looking for Cowslip" citezen observation compaing.

A pan-European citizen science campaign "Looking for Cowslips" launched in Estonia in 2019 is ending this year. Tsipe Aavik, researcher of macroecology at the University of Tartu, told "Terevisioon" that the results of the survey were astonishing.

A citizen science campaign "Looking for Cowslips" was initiated in Estonia four years ago and has grown since then into a pan-European phenomenon. The scientists from the University of Tartu asked people to go out into nature, look for the yellow meadow flowers and peek inside them.

The common cowslip primrose is a unique—heterostylous—type of flower. This means that different types of it exist in the population.

The cowslip flowers with a long style and low anthers are called L-type, while the flowers with a short style and high anthers are called S-type.

So if you look inside the S-type flower, you see stamens in the center of it, whereas the L-type flower has pistils.

The researcher said the team expected to see an equal occurrence of S-type and L-type flowers in nature. However, the results suggested otherwise.

The cowslip flowers with long style and low anthers are called L-type, while the flowers with short style and high anthers are called S-type. Source: ERR

"The interesting result of this observation was that there were more S-type flowers, or stamens," said Aavik, the lead researcher of the cowslip project.

Scientists are baffled as to why this is the case. Because the findings in Estonia were so intriguing, the researchers expanded the scope of the survey and invited a broader European response to determine whether this was also the case elsewhere in Europe.

The primary goal of studying meadow flowers is to determine whether the changes in the European landscape have had an impact on biodiversity. A cowslip flower is a kind of indicator that should alert us when the balance shifts.

"We are now looking further into the data we have collected to determine whether our findings are related to changes in landscapes", Aavik explained.

In the center of the S-type flower, you will notice stamens, whereas the L-type flower has pistils. Source: ERR

Researcher said that while in Estonia people believe that the common cowslip grows in abundance, especially in northern and western parts of the country, where it can be seen even on roadsides, the cowslip is actually a rare and endangered species in other parts of Europe.

"In some countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, it was difficult to ask people to observe those protected flowers, as conducting a survey there may require special permits", Aavik said.

So it cannot be said that the cowslip is doing really well everywhere, however, it is also a warning sign for Estonia that if the landscape changes here, it will affect our cowslip population as well, said Aavik.

There is also a third, unusual, type of cowslip flower, which has both the stamens and pistil. "So we need to understand whether the cowslip has evolved under the pressure of landscape change," she said.

Although the blooming season has ended this year and there are no plans for a major campaign of this type in the coming years, the cowslip observation website remains open. People will be able to use it to share their sightings also next spring.

Data from areas where cowslip observations were conducted in previous years are particularly welcome.

In Europe, the practice of cowslip observation is just getting on. "If you happen to be in another country next year at the time when cowslips are in bloom—your observation data will be vary valuable to us", she said.

In four years, the researchers gathered data on nearly 800,000 cowslip observation places. Source: "Looking for Cowslip" observation campaign.

In four years, the researchers gathered data on nearly 800,000 cowslip observation places. Imagine looking inside a small flower on the ground, and now imagine doing that many times, asked Aavik.

"We have got so far, because of all the thousands of people who went out of their way to find the flowers, peek inside of them and report their findings."

The organizers created this animation to illustrate how citizen science is made. 


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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