What kinds of animals and plants are people interested in? When does their interest rise? Wikipedia may have some answers, according to 2019 findings study.
As a free and openly accessible digital source of information, the world of Wikipedia has much to offer. There is the encyclopedia-like Wikipedia platform that most of us are familiar with, and which we interact with when we read about, say, salamanders or gorillas. All Wikipedia data is in turn stored in an organized database within Wikidata.
Researchers are now mining this database to answer some of the broader conservation questions.
One of the questions asked by John Mittermeyer, an ornithologist and doctoral student at the University of Oxford in the UK, was whether Wikipedia could be used to gauge public interest in different species. He wanted to look not only at what species people searched most frequently, but also when they searched for them, and how their interests varied across different groups of animals and plants.
To find out, Mittermeier and his colleagues analyzed 2.3 billion pageviews corresponding to nearly 32,000 species across 245 language versions of Wikipedia. Each page view can be considered an interaction between human and wildlife, Mittermeier said, “if you consider the click as an interaction.”
The researchers found that pageviews for more than a quarter of species showed seasonal patterns, and seasonal trends varied across different language pages.
For example, page views in the English-language Wikipedia of three migratory birds – the Baltimore Oriole (Galbula Icteros), Indigo lesson (Passerina cyanea) and pectoral implant beak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) – showed a strong peak during the spring. The researchers say this coincides with the arrival of the birds to their breeding grounds in the United States.
In contrast, page views of tropical birds such as the scarlet macaw (Ara Macao) and the beaked toucan (Ramphastus salvoratus), which was not found in the US, did not show any consistent seasonality in the English-language releases.
“If you compare tropical species, that is, species that don’t overlap with where most English-speaking Wikipedians are, they don’t show that seasonal pattern,” Mittermeier told Mongabay. “So what this tells us is that having a species in a particular area does a lot to generate interest in it. And I think that’s cool because it shows people are paying attention to things.”
The researchers also found that pageviews for species-related pages showed significantly more seasonality than random, non-species pages. Mittermeier said this suggests that wildlife and species are something we tend to interact with in a more seasonal way than other aspects of our lives.
“Seasonal landscapes such as animal migration or exotic displays associated with reproductive behavior have fascinated humans throughout the ages, but as societies become more and more disconnected from nature, for example, due to urbanization and technological developments, interest in such events is expected to wane,” said Ricardo Correia, a conservation biologist at the University of Aveiro, Portugal, who was not part of the study.”The results of this study suggest otherwise and suggest encouragingly that humans remain aware of the seasonal dynamics of the natural world.”
The study also identified some links to cultural events. Page views on the English-language Wikipedia for the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), for example, remained relatively stable throughout the year, but showed a peak around the time when Discovery Channel aired “Shark Week.”
Similarly, pageviews for wild turkey (Melegris Gallobavo) has two peaks: one during Thanksgiving in the US, and the other in the spring. Spring peak occurs around the same time as hunting season wild turkey in many US states.
Mittermeier said this was surprising. “Despite the fact that I have a background in ornithology and conservation,” he said, “I couldn’t have imagined wild turkeys getting more attention online in the spring than they do in the summer.” Mittermeier added that with that information, if someone wanted to do things like, for example, design a campaign to try and raise awareness, they could ride that natural peak.
There were differences in the seasonality of pageviews across different languages as well. Species-specific Wikipedia pages in languages spoken predominantly at higher latitudes, such as Finnish or Norwegian, have more seasonality in pageviews for species-related pages than languages spoken predominantly at lower latitudes, such as Hindi, Thai, or indonesian.
“This was also something I did not expect to see at all,” said Mittermeier. “We know that higher latitudes are more seasonal in their phenology and seeing that reflected in language tells us something about people’s interactions with the natural environment that drive online activity.”
But determining the exact cause of these patterns, which can be a complex mix of biological or cultural factors And the Differences in the structure of Wikipedia, will not be easy.
“As a scientist, we naturally want to investigate causation, but actually on this kind of scale, you can’t answer this question all the time,” said Mittermeier. “I think that’s one of the challenges with these types of big data analytics in general. We’re seeing these big correlations that definitely tell you something, but if we really want to understand individual causation, we’re going to have to look for them individually.”
However, identifying patterns of when, where, and how people interact with nature can be a good start. These trends can help guide marketing awareness and conservation campaigns, for example.
“The really close and widespread monitoring of all species in the world is still science fiction, unfortunately,” said Richard Grenier, associate professor of biodiversity and biogeography at the University of Oxford. “But with these big data approaches, we can start to cut down on some of the more difficult problems, cut down on the fundamental questions in modern conservation: how is the world changing, what species are changing the most, and where are the people who care most and can help.”
Correa said, which is part of ConsCult Working Group From the Society for Conservation Biology.
“In light of this, I believe this study will make a lasting contribution to the field conceptually, but also in terms of its methodological contribution,” added Correa. “I look forward to future studies to build on the analytical framework used here and expand our understanding of the seasonal dynamics of human interest in nature.”