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A Portrait of Biodiversity in Children’s Trade Books

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  • 1 Department of Biology & CESAM, University of AveiroCIIMAR, Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental Research, University of Porto, Portugaleunice.sousa@ua.pte.cibio.div@gmail.com
  • | 2 Department of Biology & CESAM, University of Aveiro, Portugal
  • | 3 CIIMAR, Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental Research, University of Porto, Portugal
  • | 4 Department of Biology & CESAM, University of Aveiro, Portugal
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Indirect experiences are important in the public perception of nature and may influence attitudes towards conservation. Biodiversity and the environment are frequently presented in children’s books and promote children’s attitudes and emotions about biodiversity. We examined how biodiversity was portrayed in 164 books directed at six- to eight-year-old children. Living beings and habitats were found in 98% and 80% of the books, respectively, and included 441 different organisms in a total of 21,786 occurrences. The living beings in the books weren’t representative of the global biodiversity and were dominated by few iconic nonhuman organisms, mostly mammals, especially companion animals or other domesticated animals. The representations were strongly biased towards anthropomorphization of nonhuman animals who inhabited limited common habitats. This may contribute to the idea that all biodiversity lives in forests and humanized habitats, and is limited to nonhuman animals under human mastery or to few inaccessible megafauna.

Abstract

Indirect experiences are important in the public perception of nature and may influence attitudes towards conservation. Biodiversity and the environment are frequently presented in children’s books and promote children’s attitudes and emotions about biodiversity. We examined how biodiversity was portrayed in 164 books directed at six- to eight-year-old children. Living beings and habitats were found in 98% and 80% of the books, respectively, and included 441 different organisms in a total of 21,786 occurrences. The living beings in the books weren’t representative of the global biodiversity and were dominated by few iconic nonhuman organisms, mostly mammals, especially companion animals or other domesticated animals. The representations were strongly biased towards anthropomorphization of nonhuman animals who inhabited limited common habitats. This may contribute to the idea that all biodiversity lives in forests and humanized habitats, and is limited to nonhuman animals under human mastery or to few inaccessible megafauna.

Introduction

Whenever direct contact with the natural world is scarce, indirect experiences about biodiversity and habitats may be of great importance to generate attention and publicity for conservation (Miller, 2005; Snaddon, Tunner, & Foster, 2008; Ganea, DeLoache, & Ma, 2011). Media, as one of the most relevant sources of information, has become the most important tool for vicarious experience about biodiversity and can act as a tool for public awareness (More, 1977; Kellert, 2002; Stokes, 2006). tv, Internet, books, press, and other communication pathways have now a tremendous influence on people’s perceptions and preferences about nature (Woods, 2000; Ballouard, Brischoux, & Bonnet, 2011). However, most media are decreasing the time allocated to nature, environment, and biodiversity programs (Williams, Podesschi, Palmer, Schwadel, & Meyler, 2012). Moreover, media conservation messages are often skewed, as they usually use a few charismatic megafauna species, such as pandas; tigers; elephants; or dolphins, as flagship species for public awareness, due to their ability to influence human preferences (Kellert, 1985; Woods, 2000; Stokes, 2006; Snaddon, Tunner, & Foster, 2008).

Public preferences and desires for conservation are often associated with organism aesthetics and stereotypes and are closely related to the possibility of contacting and understanding them (Lindemann-Mathies, 2005; Ballouard et al., 2013). Preferences and attitudes towards biodiversity inspire and condition species conservation and welfare since it is easier to invest in the protection of likeable species than in less-loved ones (Serpell, 1999; Woods, 2000; Miller, 2005; Batt, 2009; Fischer, Langers, Bednar-Friedl, Geamana, & Skogen, 2011). Conservation efforts are thus skewed to human preferences, and the survival of several species will depend on them (Stokes, 2006). Environmental education can thus have a crucial role in the development of the public perception of conservation strategies (Kassas, 2002; Weelie & Wals, 2002; Waylen, Fischer, McGowan, Thirgood, & Milner-Gulland, 2010; Fischer, Langers, Bednar-Friedl, Geamana, & Skogen, 2011).

Childhood is a very important period in creating attitudes about biodiversity, and childhood experiences can significantly influence attitudes in the later adult (Kellert, 1985; Ballouard et al., 2013). Species have an extraordinary role in children’s lives: nonhuman animals predominate in children’s tv programs and books, and are strongly captivating to children (Bettelheim, 1976; Serpell, 1999; Rice, 2002). Books are a very important source of information (More, 1977; Ford, 2006; Gonen & Guler, 2011; Williams, Podesschi, Palmer, Schwadel, & Meyler, 2012): they are important tools of concept transfer and for vicarious experiences with nature (Rice, 2002; Ganea, DeLoache, & Ma, 2011).

Several studies, however, have reported inaccuracy and misconceptions in children’s books (Prokop, Usak, & Erdogan, 2011; Williams, Podesschi, Palmer, Schwadel, & Meyler, 2012) and suggest that inaccuracy can influence children’s perceptions of biodiversity (More, 1977; Ford, 2006; Hug, 2010). This is particularly important under the age of eight, when children have difficulties in separating fiction from reality, or accurate from inaccurate information (Rice, 2002; Wells & Zeece, 2007). Misconceptions can also frighten children and develop feelings such as a fear for particular species or habitats, such as the fear of wolves and the forests they live in (Prokop, Usak, & Erdogan, 2011; Williams, Podesschi, Palmer, Schwadel, & Meyler, 2012).

Anthropomorphization can be another source of biodiversity misconception. Its effects are not fully understood and some authors argue that it negatively interferes with generalization and inadequate transfer of human capabilities, especially into nonhuman animals. Other authors argue that, despite this negative effect, anthropomorphization can be advantageous for children since it promotes empathy for nonhuman animals and develops a sense of awareness, better understanding and involvement (Hug, 2010; Ganea, DeLoache, & Ma, 2011). According to Kellert (1985), six to eight years old is the age period in which children develop tremendous interest for organisms and nature as well as emotions and awareness about living beings (Serpell, 2004; Lindemann-Mathies, 2005; Gonen & Guler, 2011). Also, from five years old, children are able to transfer information from books to reality and daily life, including misconceptions that they are unable to detect (Ganea, DeLoache, & Ma, 2011; Gonen & Guler, 2011; Prokop, Usak, & Erdogan, 2011). Biodiversity is an ill-defined term (Weelie & Wals, 2002), so the period from pre-school to second grade (eight years old) is a common target for teaching through children’s literature, since narrative seems to better explain the vast and multi-conceptual theme of biodiversity (Rice, 2002).

The present study aimed to understand how biodiversity is portrayed in books for children of six to eight years old. The presence and frequency of living beings and habitats were analyzed in the text and images of the book sample, as well as their importance in the stories and anthropomorphization. The data allowed testing for significant differences between the frequency of the main taxonomic groups in the real world and in the children’s books, and for bias in favor of the frequency of vertebrate animals when compared to invertebrates. The relative portrayal of habitats and of the origin of the species mentioned in the books were also compared between authors from different nationalities.

The analyzed books were from a list of recommended books for six- to eight-year-old children by the National Reading Plan of the Portuguese government (pnl—Plano National de Leitura), a strategy implemented by some Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development countries following the last pisa study (Program for International Student Assessment) to increase public literacy. The books in the pnl list are authored from a range of nationalities and can have a high impact on individual reading choices and also those in the scholar, family, and/or library contexts (Costa, Pegado, Ávila, & Coelho, 2011).

Materials and Methods

A total of 164 books from the 2011 National Reading Plan list were analyzed. These included Portuguese (58%) and authors of other nationalities (42%); their books were recommended for oriented reading in the classroom and autonomous reading for the first and second grade (six- to eight-year-old children).

Taking account of the biodiversity concepts proposed by the United Nations Environment Program and the Convention on Biological Diversity, the various species of nonhuman animals and plants found in text and images were listed as elements of biodiversity and named according to the terms used in the books or the closest identification achievable by their representation in images. The variables used to describe the elements of biodiversity and the habitats in the books are characterized in Table 1.

The variables proved to be obvious during the data collection and did not cause difficulties during coding. However, in order to avoid any difficulties in decision-making, the coding procedure was centered in a basic occurrence counting. Therefore, the number of times a nonhuman animal or a plant was mentioned in the text or shown in images was counted per book and registered as text or image occurrence, respectively. Some coding guidelines were established in order to help decision-making. Namely, proper names of characters referring to biodiversity elements were always counted as occurrences. In addition, subject pronouns referring to biodiversity elements were not counted as occurrences.

table 1

Coding and description for variables used to characterize biodiversity elements and habitats in book sample

table 1
table 1

The sum of text occurrences and image occurrences gave the total text occurrence and total image occurrence (total abundances) of each element of biodiversity in each book. The mean abundance, or mean occurrence, of biodiversity elements per book was calculated by dividing the total abundance in the book by the total number of biodiversity elements in the same book. These values were used to obtain the overall mean occurrence of biodiversity elements in the book sample. The same procedure was applied to text and image occurrences individually. The variety of ecosystems was listed as habitats and classified as natural or anthropomorphized. Only the content of the stories was considered in the analysis, meaning that images or text from the cover and back cover were not included.

The data allowed statistical testing of the following null hypotheses (H0):

H01—The main taxonomic groups of species in children’s books show a frequency distribution that corresponds well to global biodiversity.

H02—The main taxonomic groups of species represented in children’s books do not show a biased frequency in favor of vertebrates, when compared to the proportion of vertebrates and invertebrates in the real world.

H03—The origin of the elements of biodiversity (categories in Table 1) in children’s trade books is independent of the author’s national origin (Portuguese versus other nationalities).

All null hypotheses were tested employing Chi-square analysis of frequencies significance tests (Zar, 1984). The frequency distribution of taxa per major groups of organisms on Earth was collected from the iucn 2010 Red list document of summary statistics (http://www.iucnredlist.org/documents/summarystatistics/2012_1_RL_Stats_Table_1.pdf).

The data matrix registering the habitats in the book sample (presence/absence data) was submitted to multivariate ordination analysis, using Principal Coordinates Analysis (pco), following the calculation of a resemblance matrix among habitats using the Bray-Curtis similarity coefficient. The Bray-Curtis similarity varies from 0 to 1 (or 0 to 100, in percentage). A similarity of 0 between two habitats denotes that they are always mentioned in different books, whereas a similarity of 100 between two habitats would be obtained if they were mentioned only in the same books. The similarity matrix among all habitats mentioned in the book sample was then explored by ordination analysis, allowing representation in a diagram with two dimensions, axes 1 and 2, the largest possible proportion of the variance of the full data set.

In the ordination diagram, the more similar habitats will be represented closer to each other, meaning they tend to be mentioned in the same books. The opposite happens when habitats are represented away from each other in the diagram (see Clarke, Gorley, Somerfield, & Warwick, 2014). The similarity between habitats shown in the ordinations diagrams was reinforced by superimposing their frequency, represented as circles of different sizes, the larger the more frequent. The calculation of the correlation between the respective Bray-Curtis similarity matrices, using the Spearman non-metric correlation coefficient allowed for achieving the relative portrayal of habitats in Portuguese and authors of other nationalities. All the multivariate analyses were performed with the PRIMER v6 software (Clarke & Gorley, 2006).

Results

Biodiversity in the Stories

In the 164 books analyzed, 160 (98%) had the occurrence of at least one element of biodiversity in the text or in the images. A total of 441 different elements of biodiversity were identified: 168 plants and 273 nonhuman animals, comprising 92 mammals, 69 birds, 39 arthropods, 32 fish, 14 reptiles, 3 amphibians, and 24 other groups including mollusks and annelids. The total number of biodiversity occurrences was 21,786, of which 8,952 were text and 12,834 were image occurrences. The total number of presences was 3,220: 2,232 in the text and 2,357 in the images.

The number of elements of biodiversity per book ranged from 3 to 882, with a mean of 133 ± 129.5 (standard deviation) occurrences per book. The number of elements of biodiversity present in the books also showed a wide range, from 1 to 93, with a mean of 20 elements per book. The mean abundance of the same biodiversity element in a book was 8. Despite the large number of occurrences, most were related to a restricted number of elements of biodiversity: only 16 elements of biodiversity gathered more than 50% of the occurrences.

The 10 dominant elements of biodiversity regarding the number of occurrences are shown in Table 2. The most mentioned were undefined species of trees, flowers, and plants as well as undefined species of birds, fish, and mammals, mainly companion animals and other domesticated animals for labor and food production. In the text, companion animals, other domesticated animals, foxes, wolves, and crocodiles had most of the occurrences, while in the images, the undefined groups of plants, including flowers and trees, followed by undefined birds, companion animals, and some other domesticated animals were the most frequent (Table 2).

table 2

Top 10 biodiversity elements responsible for total, text, and image occurrences plus total presences in the book sample

table 2

a Gallinaceous includes chicken and rooster. Undefined: text or images in the book did not specify the species or group of species.

The elements of biodiversity were grouped as arthropods, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, plants, and other groups. Figure 1 shows the distribution of the occurrences among these groups in the text, the images and globally. Considering the text, mammals had 45% of the occurrences, followed by birds (17%) and plants (16%) (Figure 1a). In the images, plants comprised 37% of occurrences, followed by mammals (31%) (Figure 1b). When text and images are combined, mammals corresponded to 37% of the occurrences, followed by plants (29%), birds (16%), and arthropods (8%) (Figure 1c). The major contributors to mammal occurrences, representing more than 50% of the total occurrences, were cats, rabbits, dogs, mice, wolves, foxes, and horses. However, other nonhuman animals, such as lions, elephants, monkeys, donkeys and pigs, also contributed to 50% of the presences.

figure 1
figure 1

Distribution of occurrences per biodiversity group ( fantastic animals or biological traces were excluded) (a) in the text (b) in images, and (c) in total; Presences of biodiversity groups in (d) the main plot and (e) the scenario, ( f ) as main characters and (g) as characters, and (h) in anthropomorphization categories. “Other groups” include annelids, mollusks, algae and lichens. Plant cluster include undefined plants, trees, flowers, vegetables, and fruits.

Citation: Society & Animals 25, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341447

In the bird group, most of the occurrences (>50%) were due to undefined birds, mainly chickens and ducks, while for presences (>50%) the list also included the egg (bird’s egg), doves, parrots, and seagulls. In the arthropods, butterflies, bees, ants, and flies, together composed more than 50% of the occurrences. When considering presences, the list included spiders, crickets, and mosquitos. Fishes (3%), reptiles (3%), and amphibians (1%) were scarcely represented, and most of the occurrences (>60%) were due to undefined fish. If presences were considered, the most mentioned (60% occurrences) within reptiles were crocodiles, turtles, and snakes. In addition to scarcely appearing in the book sample, amphibians were only represented by toads, frogs, and salamanders. The toad had more than 50% of the occurrences and, together with frogs, more than 50% of presences.

The other groups composed 2% of the total occurrences and included many taxonomic groups of mushrooms, snails, seaweeds, starfishes, and octopuses. In terms of images, mammals were the major contributors for the main plot (43%), followed by birds (17%). Scenarios were dominated by plants (40%), especially undefined plants, followed by mammals (25%) and birds (13%) (Figure 1d and e). Arthropods were also well represented in images, either as 11% of presences or 8% of scenarios. Reptiles and amphibians were scarcely represented in images, although relatively more were represented as minor characters than as scenarios (Figure 1e and f).

Concerning the species groups in the stories (main, secondary, or minor characters), mammals played the main character in 40% of the stories; followed by birds (19%), mainly chickens and roosters (gallinaceous); and plants (18%). Several stories highlighted a tree or a flower as the main character, and arthropods (15%) (Figure 1f and g). Minor characters were usually played by plants (31%) and by mammals (27%). Fishes, despite their small contribution (5%), were mostly represented as minor characters. Reptiles were equally represented as main characters (4%) and as other characters (4%), and amphibians played mostly the main character (2%).

Biodiversity on Earth and in Books Sampled

Figure 2 shows the distribution of taxa per major groups of organisms on Earth and in the book sample. The comparison showed statistically significant differences (H01, χ2 = 8,043.404; p ≤ 0.0001). Major differences were due to over-representation of plants and vertebrates and under-representation of invertebrates, compared to the real distribution of taxa on Earth. The most over-represented groups were mammals and birds, while arthropods were the most under-represented. By classifying the nonhuman animals simply as vertebrates and invertebrates, the differences between their frequencies in the real global biodiversity and in the book sample were also statistically significant (H02, χ2 = 2,494.445; p ≤ 0.0001) (Figure 2).

Anthropomorphization, Authors’ Nationalities, and Origin of Biodiversity Elements

Anthropomorphization was present in all major taxonomic groups, but was dominant in mammals (58% of presences), followed by birds (16%) and arthropods (10%) (Figure 1h). It consisted mainly of facial expressions (31%), human behavior (17%), speech (16%), use of human objects (16%), and bipedal position (10%) (Figure 3A). In mammals, all the anthropomorphization categories were substantially used and evenly distributed. Fishes and the “other groups” presented the most important percentage of facial expressions. Human behavior and bipedal posture were low in fish when compared to the other groups. Plants were the only group for which facial expression was not the most important anthropomorphization category, whereas speech had the highest relative proportion (Figure 3A).

figure 2
figure 2

Distribution of taxa per (a) major group of organism on earth and (b) in the book sample analyzed.

source: iucn 2010 redlist; http://www.iucnredlist.org/documents/summarystatistics/2010_1RL_Stats_Table_1.pdf.

Citation: Society & Animals 25, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341447

Regarding the origin of the elements of biodiversity, about 48% were autochthonous to Portugal and 43% were exotic (Figure 3B). The proportions of exotic and autochthonous occurrences were very similar (34% and 35%, respectively). About 59% of the authors in the book sample were Portuguese and 41% were other nationalities (29% Europeans, mainly from uk, France, Italy, and Germany; and 12% were from other continents). Focusing on the origin of the elements of biodiversity, differences between author nationalities (Portuguese versus other nationalities) were statistically significant (H03, χ2 = 408.79; p ≤ 0.0001) (Table 1). Major differences included the fact that Portuguese authors used undefined and uncertain elements of biodiversity more often, while other authors with other nationalities referred to more exotic and autochthonous elements (Figure 3B).

Habitats

Habitats were represented in 93% of the books (152 out of 164). Natural and artificial habitats were present in about 80% and 70% of the book sample, respectively. Natural habitats included 19 types while no distinction was made within artificial habitats (see Table 1 for the definition of artificial habitat). Forests were the most frequent natural habitat (36%), and included Temperate and Mediterranean forests (it was impossible to distinguish between them). After forests, the most frequent habitats were somewhat anthropomorphized, and included gardens and agricultural landscapes, both present in about 30% of the books. Oceans and rivers were also frequent and were present in 30% and 20% of the books, respectively. All the other natural habitats (desert, lake, savannah, polar, pond, coastal zone, tropical forest, taiga, tundra, prairie, steppe, coral and swamp) were present in less than 15% of the books.

figure 3
figure 3

Relative importance of anthropomorphization categories per (A) biodiversity group and the (B) relative proportion of the origin of the biodiversity elements in the total book sample and in the sub-samples corresponding to Portuguese and authors of other nationalities. The first column corresponds to the list of the origin of biodiversity elements mentioned in the books.

Citation: Society & Animals 25, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341447

Figure 4 shows the ordination analysis diagrams of the data matrices concerning the habitats registered per book. Some of the habitats were only present in very few books and they were considered as a single class, named “other habitats” (gathering taiga, tundra, prairie, steppe, coral, and swamp), leaving a total of 14 different habitats in the 152 books. The Bray-Curtis similarity between habitats was calculated for the total data and separately for the sub-sets of Portuguese and authors with other nationalities.

The three were represented in ordination diagrams: Figure 4A, corresponding to the sub-set of Portuguese authors; Figure 4B, to authors of other nationalities; and Figure 4C, to the whole dataset. The closer the circles in the ordination diagram, the more similar the habitats they represent, meaning they tend to be mentioned in the same books. The opposite is true when habitats are represented away from each other in the diagram. In the three analyses, two main groups of habitats were represented on opposite sides of axis 1, gathering the largest proportion of total variance. They corresponded to two subgroups of habitats with a distinct number of presences in the books, identified in the ordination diagrams by the size of the circles (see Figure 4).

figure 4
figure 4

Principal coordinates analysis (pco) of a Bray-Curtis similarity resemblance matrix between habitats in the books written by Portuguese authors (A), by authors of other nationalities (B), and in the total book sample (C). The circle sizes reflect the frequency of each habitat. Forest (Tr)—Tropical forest; Forest (M/T)—Mediterranean and temperate forests.

Citation: Society & Animals 25, 3 (2017) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341447

The habitats used more often by authors, represented by the larger circles, included artificial habitats and well-known natural habitats, namely Temperate and Mediterranean forests, gardens, agricultural landscapes, and, to a lesser extent, oceans and rivers (Figure 4C). This trend was clearer in Portuguese authors (Figure 4A) than in authors of other nationalities who, proportionally, invested much more in artificial habitats than Portuguese authors (Figure 4B). This was confirmed by the stronger Spearman correlation between the Bray-Curtis similarity matrices representing the total book sample and the Portuguese authors’ books (ρ = 0.831; p ≤ 0.01), when compared to the total book sample and other nationality authors’ books (ρ = 0.674; p ≤ 0.01), as well as the low correlation between the habitat data matrices from Portuguese and other nationality authors (ρ = 0.241; p ≤ 0.02).

Discussion

Various authors have noticed that a significant part of children’s books include animal or plant species or habitats (Ford, 2006; Williams, Podesschi, Palmer, Schwadel, & Meyler, 2012). The results from this study support such conclusions, as almost 98% of the 164 books analyzed included biodiversity elements and about 80% mentioned natural habitats. However, the results from this study are against the first hypothesis (H01). The biodiversity elements’ frequency distribution was not representative of the global species diversity, as has been suggested by others (Gonen & Guler, 2011), and significant differences were observed between the global species diversity distribution among major taxa groups and the one represented in the book sample. The results are against the null hypothesis H02 and showed that, generally, plants and all vertebrate groups, especially mammals, were over-represented in both text and images. Arthropods, as invertebrate taxa (included in “other groups”), were largely under-represented in the book sample, considering their contribution to global species diversity.

The distributions of the occurrences were dominated by few biodiversity elements. Most of them, shown in the Top 10 list (Table 2), included mammals, especially companion animals and domestic animals, as well as undefined groups of plants. In addition to appearing more frequently, mammals were also the major contributors as the main characters in the stories, while keeping high frequencies as other characters and in the scenario. Even so, major mammal main characters and the main plot were again provided by a limited number of nonhuman animals, mainly companion animals and domesticated animals for labor or food production.

Humans usually do not appreciate arthropods and invertebrates mainly due to their morphology, which is very different from vertebrates (Kellert, 1993; Knight, 2008). Arthropods were poorly represented in the book sample when compared to their proportion in global species diversity. They were mainly represented by butterflies, bees, ants, and flies, possibly due to the relevance of aesthetic factors like color (bees and butterflies) in preferences (Stokes, 2006; Wagler & Wagler, 2012), cultural associations of effort and perseverance (ants and bees), or direct and more intense contact with the human population (ants and flies).

Within the vertebrates, reptiles and amphibians were the least represented groups. Reptiles are considered one of the species groups least liked by the general public. They were mostly represented in the main plot of the images but did not play a specific type of character in the text. Crocodiles were the main contributors to the frequencies of this group, which lead to a high exotic origin of the occurrences in the group, as mentioned in other studies (Prokop, Özel, & Uşak, 2009; Tomazic, 2011a; Ballouard et al., 2013).

Amphibians were one of the less used groups. They were generally mentioned only broadly, so it was difficult to distinguish between species. Within Anura, authors hardly or incorrectly distinguished frogs from toads both in text and in images. This lack of accuracy may interfere with children’s information transfer from books to reality and could explain negative attitudes towards amphibians mentioned in several studies (Tomazic, 2008, 2011b; Ceriaco, 2012).

Although plants had a relevant role in the books analyzed, they were more important in images, namely in the scenario, as “undefined plants,” being impossible to identify to a more specific taxonomic level. Some studies have shown that people are usually more interested in nonhuman animals than in plants (Wandersee, 1986; Lindemann-Mathies, 2005). Children also like nonhuman animals more than plants, are more informed about them, and want to know and protect nonhuman animals rather than plants (Wandersee, 1986). Such preference could be based on a fascination for movement, eye contact, communication by sound, behavior learning, and interaction, none of which are provided by plants. This preference may also be based on children’s capacity for empathy for certain species, which appears to be culturally shaped (Stewart & Cole, 2009). Non-flowering plants or flowering plants at their non-flowering periods also have a small chromatic impact in children. Because of this, people tend to perceive plants as a part of the animals’ “lifeless” habitat, and not as individuals (Lindemann-Mathies, 2005). “Undefined fish” and “undefined birds” were also the main contributors to the total frequencies in each group, although birds had a more important role in the main plot and as main characters than plants or fish. Birds were usually represented by passerines and juveniles, using very simple graphics. Fish were also poorly characterized and usually represented by bony fish only. It was surprising that birds, being animals more easily observed in their natural habitats, were so poorly represented at the level of the species. The same occurred with fish in the case of Portuguese authors, despite the extensive Portuguese shoreline and oceanic history. As with plants, cultural factors may be responsible for these undefined representations. Contact with fish is difficult due to the characteristics of their habitat, which reduces direct contact with aquariums, the fish market, or after cooking. Whatever the reason, representations interfere with transfer of information in children (Ganea, DeLoache, & Ma, 2011), and the representation of groups of organisms as “undefined” may contribute to a poor perception of organisms.

In conclusion, this pattern shows that with the exception of plants, the taxonomic groups phylogenetically closer to humans are over-represented in the book sample. Vertebrates, especially mammals and birds, were over-represented, whereas invertebrates and other outlying taxonomic groups were under-represented in the book sample compared to their global species distribution. The trend to represent living beings that are closest to and similar to humans is strengthened by an intense anthropomorphization of the characters in the stories in all major groups of organisms, a major artificial feature of biodiversity in children’s books (Ganea, DeLoache, & Ma, 2011). The most important anthropomorphization categories were facial expressions, human behavior, speech, and the use of objects. They were mostly applied to mammals, a group that is phylogenetically closer to man and preferred by children (Lindemann-Mathies, 2005).

Anthropomorphization makes the organisms physically and behaviorally more similar to humans and therefore even more preferred by children (Woods, 2000; Batt, 2009), but it devalues and distorts their own characteristics as living beings. It is unclear if anthropomorphization is used to make organisms similar to humans or to provide evidence of phylogenetic similarities to humans. Some authors argue that some anthropomorphization categories promote empathy for nonhuman animals and sense of awareness. Many other authors consider that anthropomorphization creates misconceptions about species and their relations with humans (Wells & Zeece, 2007; Ganea, DeLoache, & Ma, 2011).

In fact, by observing the use of anthropomorphization categories in the book sample, we suggest that, whereas speech ability may marginally interfere with information transfer about an organism’s characteristics and habits, since it plays a major role in message transfer and understanding, other categories such as human behavior and object use alter the organism’s characteristics as well as their habits. This distorts the information transmitted about all the species groups, and can transfer inaccurate facts that negatively interfere with generalization and cause inadequate transfer of human capabilities to other organisms (Hug, 2010; Ganea, DeLoache, & Ma, 2011).

Concerning the origin of the biodiversity elements in relation to the origins of the authors, several differences are visible, although it cannot be stated that Portuguese authors refer more to autochthonous species than those of other nationalities, which is against the null hypothesis H03. Portuguese authors included in their stories undefined and uncertain elements more often than authors of other nationalities. An undefined view of biodiversity, systematically applied in books, seems to have a considerable impact on children’s conception of organisms. Authors of other nationalities used autochthonous biodiversity elements more often than Portuguese authors, but also exotic bio diversity elements, as a consequence of fewer situations of undefined and uncertain taxa definitions. This shows that authors of other nationalities, although not focused on their countries’ species, usually better defined the species in their books than Portuguese authors, which reduced the level of alienation about species that is more common in Portuguese authors’ books.

Finally, habitats were present in most of the books, which is in agreement with the fact that biodiversity and also the environment are commonly used in children’s books (Ganea, DeLoache, & Ma, 2011). The organisms often appeared associated with a natural but also a partially humanized habitat. Artificial habitats were the most frequent habitats in the book sample, usually sharing their presence with natural habitats. Forests were very common, which recalls the enchanted forest from fairy tales (Bettelheim, 1976). The most portrayed habitats that included some human interference (as agricultural landscape or gardens) usually appeared together.

Authors invested more on well-known habitats like gardens, fields, forests, rivers, or the ocean and this was especially relevant with Portuguese authors. This may be because of the recent development of Portugal compared to other European countries, an aspect that may be seen in the books with mainly pictures of rural Portugal until the middle of the 20th century. Authors of other nationalities, on the other hand, although investing in those habitats, appear to be more persistent with artificial habitats. These results confirm recent studies showing that authors invest more in less natural environments, with built environments being increasingly portrayed in children’s books (Williams, Podesschi, Palmer, Schwadel, & Meyler, 2012). Often such partially artificial habitats are devoid of a negative interference from humans, leading to an image of peaceful coexistence of man in nature which, although untrue, is common in people’s perception of biodiversity (Fischer & Young, 2007; Fischer, Langers, Bednar-Friedl, Geamana, & Skogen, 2011).

Overall, this study showed that children’s books presented a distorted image of biodiversity, leading to an erroneous transfer of information. Biodiversity was limited to a few defined species of nonhuman animals, mostly mammals, especially companion animals or domesticated animals for labor or food production as well as charismatic megafauna, who were commonly portrayed as main characters, showing anthropomorphized skills and inhabiting well-known, often artificial habitats. Other species groups such as invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians were generally forgotten.

The books could be limiting the connections between human-animal species to a human-pet relationship and therefore interfere with children’s information and emotion transfer (Johnson, 1996; Ganea, DeLoache, & Ma, 2011). The fact that approximately half of the biodiversity elements were exotic supports the conclusion that the biodiversity available from vicarious experiences is limited to a few likeable, domesticated (e.g., companion animals) species or to distant (e.g., elephant) and inaccessible groups of species (Ballouard, Brischoux, & Bonnet, 2011), which can have negative effects in conservation actions (Kassas, 2002; Lindemann-Mathies, 2005).

Several studies also showed that children prefer nonhuman animals over plants, especially vertebrates with physical and behavioral similarities to humans, particularly companion animals and other charismatic megafauna (Wandersee, 1986; Kellert, 1996; Stokes, 2006). This has lead authors to conclude that some crucial relation must exist between the content of children’s books and the attitudes and preferences (even preferences for conservation) they develop about species (More, 1979; Prokop, Usak, & Erdogan, 2011). This relationship is still poorly understood. As reported in other studies, species are being primarily used as a tool for engaging children in the social situations of the stories by the overuse of anthropomorphization features, while its role promoting biodiversity was often neglected (More, 1977; Williams, Podesschi, Palmer, Schwadel, & Meyler, 2012).

Education for biodiversity through vicarious experience is crucial and highly recommended in order to contribute to the success of conservation actions (Miller, 2005; Waylen, Fischer, McGowan, Thirgood, & Milner-Gulland, 2010; Ballouard, Brischoux, & Bonnet, 2011). So, without neglecting the children’s writers’ freedom and imagination, efforts must be made in order to address biodiversity not only as a tool to develop skills and emotions in children, but also as a target for learning and the transfer of information about conservation and nature protection (Randler, Ilg, & Kern, 2005; Fischer et al., 2011; Fischer, Langers, Bednar-Friedl, Geamana, & Skogen, 2011). This study was focused on the set of books analyzed from a list recommended by the National Reading Plan of Portugal that have a major influence on individual, scholar, family, and library reading choices. We hope that it can contribute to advancing research and discussions on communication pathways in society, in particular on how media addresses biodiversity and conservation issues for children.

Conclusion

Biodiversity and environment were found to be frequent in children’s books. However, the information about biodiversity and the environment in these books is strongly distorted, which may negatively influence children’s attitudes towards conservation. This constitutes a serious concern at a time when vicarious experiences in biodiversity are crucial and highly recommended in order to contribute to the success of conservation actions. Without impairing authors’ creativity, efforts must be made to introduce these values into their writing strategies for children.

Since the impact of this effort can only be expected in the long term, all communication pathways that promote direct and vicarious experiences in biodiversity should be stimulated. Environmental activities in particular should be able to promote direct contact, critical thinking, and an understanding of biodiversity, devoid of prejudices and misconceptions. They may have an important role in redirecting the perception of children about life on earth and their conscious choice for promoting conservation.

Acknowledgments

E.S. benefited from a Ph.D. grant from Portuguese Science Foundation (sfrh/bd/73943/2010), funded by pophqren—type 4.1—advanced training, subsidized by the European Social Fund and Portuguese mctes fund. This work was also supported by the Portuguese Science Foundation (fct) through cesam: uid/amb/50017/2013.

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