What can the online world teach us about the natural world?

In today’s world, an increasing amount of our interactions with one another - as well as interactions with our environment – centres around the digital realm. These may be our posts on social media, internet search engine patterns, or visits to different webpages. Although we may often suspect that today’s technology culture may be generally bringing us away from nature, within these vast and ever-expanding online data, entirely new insights about animals and plants can be found. 

In a paper published today in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, a group of international researchers led by Dr Ivan Jarić, of the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences, explored these options in a new field newly termed iEcology. This study mapped this new field, its possibilities, challenges, and potential future direction using data that are not deliberately collected to expand our ecological knowledge, but are rather gathered as a welcome byproduct of our constant need to Google, Tweet, blog and record our lives. 

Dr Josh Firth, of the Department of Zoology, formed part of the team who defined iEcology as the study of ecological patterns and the processes of 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,’ said Firth. “For instance, exploring seasonal dynamics of when people search for particular species in Wikipedia can highlight true seasonal dynamics of species."

Another study analyzed online photos (posted by internet users) of oxpecker birds and various herbivores they sit on, and this illuminated the interactions between these species groups. In another elegant example, an analysis of video images of the Tour-De-Flanders from the past 35 years enabled highlighting changes in leafing and blooming periods of the trees found in the background of the images.

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 to 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 beused.”

Dr Uri Roll from Ben-Gurion University 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.”

For more information, please check the dedicated webpage: www.i-ecology.org