An increasing amount of our interactions with each other, as well as with our environment is manifested in the digital realm. These may be our posts on social media, internet search engine patterns, or visits to different webpages. Although we may suspect that today’s technology culture is drawing us away from nature, within these vast and ever-expanding online data, entirely new insights about animals and plants can be found. Indeed, these are not data deliberately collected to expand our ecological knowledge, rather a welcome byproduct of our constant need to Google, Tweet, blog, record our lives, and basically stay constantly connected.
A group of international researchers led by Dr. Ivan Jarić (from the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences), explored these options in a new field they term iEcology. Their study mapped this new field, its possibilities, challenges, and potential future directions.
Importantly, the researchers outline iEcology as the study of ecological patterns and processes using online data generated for other purposes and stored digitally. Several particularly interesting examples already highlight the great potential of such approaches to increase our knowledge of the natural world. For instance, exploring seasonal dynamics through when people search for particular species in Wikipedia can highlight true seasonal dynamics of species (see here for more details). Another study analyzed online photos (posted by internet users) of oxpecker birds and various herbivores they sit on, which illuminated the interactions between these species groups (see here for more details). In another elegant example, an analysis of video images of the Tour-De-Flanders filmed over the past 35 years enabled the highlighting of changes in leafing and blooming periods of the trees found in the background of the images (see here for more details).
Dr. Jarić, the lead author of the new study, is very enthusiastic about the potential of iEcology: “People are – rightfully – worried about our constant need to be logged-on, and potential abuse of these online data. However, with iEcology we highlight the silver lining of this ‘data deluge’”.
“We can now learn so much about where species reside, when they are active in different manners, and how they interact with each other and their environment. We do not see iEcology as a replacement of the classical and highly important field ecology – rather as being complementary to it. There are huge amounts of data constantly accumulating with vast and varied potential, just waiting to be used.”
Dr. Uri Roll (from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), another author of the new paper, was particularly hopeful about the conservation potential of such approaches: “Populations and entire species of animals and plants are disappearing before our eyes at unprecedented rates. In many cases before we even get a chance to record them in the first place. We are at the eleventh hour and need all the help we can get to gain ecological insights and better understand how we affect the environment”.
“iEcology holds much promise to help us along all these fronts. I expect its use to increase greatly in the coming years as people become more aware of its potential, and the tools to analyze such data become commonplace.”
Publication in Trends in Ecology & Evolution 10 avril 2020