How Your Facebook Photos Can Help Save the World’s Wildlife

Researchers are using social media sites to catalog the diversity of plants and animals.

Thanks to Facebook, biodiversity researchers would know this banana slug was crossing a trail at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California on Sunday at 12:38 p.m. PT. (Photo: Todd Woody)

Oct 27, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Sure, social networking sites are great for catching up on your friends’ baby photos or posting snapshots from a recent vacation. But they can also serve as repositories of biological data gathered from unwitting naturalists around the world.

For instance, Vijay Barve, a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, found 46,684 photos of the monarch butterfly on the photo-sharing service Flickr. Moreover, 5,381 of the shots were tagged with their exact locations. Such information could prove useful to biologists concerned about the declining population of the iconic butterfly, whose numbers have plummeted from 1 billion to 35 million over the past 20 years.

“Many of these photographs on social networking sites qualify as biodiversity occurrence records as they tell us what, where, when and by whom,” said Barve, who recently published his research in the journal Ecological Informatics.

That means anyone with a smartphone—in other words, just about everyone—can become a biodiversity sensor, feeding data to scientists studying, say, the impact of climate change on plants and wildlife.

Mining social networks for the location of wildlife can help researchers plug vast gaps in biodiversity knowledge, according to Barve.

That’s particularly true in developing countries, where former colonial rulers deposited historical collections of native flora and fauna in European museums, where they remain digitally cataloged, he said. Developing countries themselves have invested little in curating and digitizing biodiversity data in their own collections.

But social media can serve as a potentially powerful and inexpensive scientific tool. “This does not require high-level technology at all,” said Barve. “A simple camera, even a phone camera, and access to the Internet are the only requirements, and both these things are becoming ubiquitous.”

Also there’s the compulsion to share interesting photos, particularly from overseas travels, with our ever-widening communities on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Flickr.

“Foreign tourists sharing photographs of their tours can add to this data substantially for my explorations,” Barve said.