Wikipedia searches reveal how people’s interests in wildlife change

  • By analyzing Wikipedia pages corresponding to nearly 32,000 species across 245 Wikipedia language editions, researchers have found that pageviews for more than a quarter of the species show seasonal patterns. This suggests people are paying attention to the animals and plants around them, researchers say.
  • The study also found that views for species-related pages showed a lot more seasonality than random, non-species-related pages, suggesting that people tend to interact with wildlife in a more seasonal way than other aspects of their lives.
  • The study, while identifying some interesting patterns, does not dig into the potential causes driving those patterns.
  • What it does uncover are patterns of when, where and how people interact with nature, which, researchers say, can help guide conservation education and marketing campaigns.

What kinds of animals and plants are people interested in? When does their interest spike? Wikipedia may hold some answers, a new study has found.

As a free and open-access digital source of information, the Wikipedia universe has a lot to offer. There’s the encyclopedia-like Wikipedia platform most of us are familiar with, one that we interact with when we’re reading about, say, salamanders or gorillas. All of Wikipedia’s data are stored in a structured database within Wikidata. Researchers are now digging into this database to answer some broader conservation-related questions.

One question that John Mittermeier, an ornithologist and doctoral student at the University of Oxford, U.K., had was to see if Wikipedia could be used to measure public interest in different species. He wanted to look at not just what species people searched for most frequently, but also when they searched for it, and how their interests varied across different animal and plant groups.

To find out, Mittermeier and his colleagues analyzed 2.3 billion pageviews for pages corresponding to nearly 32,000 species across 245 Wikipedia language editions. Each pageview can be thought of as a human-wildlife interaction, Mittermeier said, “if you count a click as an interaction.”

The researchers found that pageviews for more than a quarter of the species showed seasonal patterns, and the seasonal trends varied across different language pages.

For example, pageviews on English-language Wikipedia for three migratory birds — the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) and rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) — showed a strong peak during spring. This coincides with the birds’ arrival at breeding grounds in the United States, the researchers say. In contrast, pageviews for tropical birds like the scarlet macaw (Ara macao) and the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), that are not found in the U.S., did not show any consistent seasonality in the English-language editions.

“If you compare with the tropical species, that is, species that don’t overlap with where most English speaking Wikipedia users are, they don’t show this seasonal pattern,” Mittermeier told Mongabay. “So what that’s telling us is that the presence of a species in a certain area does a lot to trigger interest in it. And I think that’s cool because that shows that people are paying attention to things.”

A male indigo bunting in breeding plumage. Image by Kevin Bolton via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

The researchers also found that pageviews for the species-related pages showed a lot more seasonality than random, non-species-related pages. This, Mittermeier said, suggests that wildlife and species are something we tend to interact with in a more seasonal way than other aspects of our life.

“Seasonal natural spectacles such as animal migration or exotic displays associated with reproductive behaviour have fascinated humans for ages, but as societies become increasingly disconnected from nature, for example due to urbanisation and technological developments, attention towards such events could be 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 indicate otherwise and encouragingly suggest that humans remain attuned to the seasonal dynamics of the natural world.”

The study also identified some links to cultural events. Pageviews on English-language Wikipedia for the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), for instance, remained relatively stable throughout the year, but showed a peak around the time when the Discovery Channel aired “Shark Week.”

Similarly, pageviews for wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) showed two peaks: one during Thanksgiving in the U.S., and another in spring. The spring peak occurs around the same time as the hunting season for wild turkey in many U.S. states.

This was surprising, Mittermeier said. “Despite the fact that I have an ornithology and conservation background, I wouldn’t have guessed that wild turkeys get more online interest in spring than they do in the summer,” he said. With this information, if someone wanted to do things like, say, design a campaign to try and raise awareness, they could ride this natural peak, Mittermeier added.

Pageviews for the great white shark peaked around the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” Image by Terry Goss via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5).

There were differences in seasonality of pageviews across different languages, too. Wikipedia pages of species in languages that are mostly spoken at higher latitudes, such as Finnish or Norwegian, had more seasonality in pageviews of species-related pages than languages mostly spoken at lower latitudes, such as Hindi, Thai or Indonesian.

“That was also something I didn’t expect to see at all,” Mittermeier said. “We know that higher latitudes are more seasonal in their phenology and to see that reflected in language tells us something about people’s interaction with natural environment driving online activity.”

But pinpointing the exact cause of these patterns, which can be a complex mix of biological or cultural factors and differences in the structure of Wikipedia, isn’t going to be easy.

“As a scientist, we naturally want to dig into the causation, but in reality at this kind of scale you can’t answer that question all the time,” Mittermeier said. “I think that’s one of the challenges of these types of big data analyses in general. We’re seeing these big correlations that definitely tell you something but if we really want to understand individual causation then we’ll have to dig into them individually.”

However, identifying patterns of when, where and how people interact with nature can be a good start. These trends can help guide conservation education and marketing campaigns, for example.

“Really widespread, accurate monitoring of all the world’s species is still science fiction, unfortunately,” said Richard Grenyer, an associate professor of biodiversity and biogeography at the University of Oxford. “But by using these big data approaches we can begin to shortcut some of the more difficult problems, and cut to the core questions in modern conservation: how is the world changing, for which species is it changing the most, and where are the people who care the most and can do the most to help.”

Using digital methods to explore human connections with nature to benefit conservation — a nascent field termed “conservation culturomics” — has great potential, said Correia, who is part of the Conservation Culturomics (ConsCult) Working Group of the Society for Conservation Biology.

“In this light, I believe this study will make a lasting contribution to the field conceptually, but also in terms of its methodological contribution,” Correia added. “I look forward for future studies to take advantage of the analytical framework used here and expand our understanding of seasonal dynamics of human interest in nature.”

Wikipedia searches reveal how people’s interests in wildlife change
A keel-billed toucan in Costa Rica. Image by Andy Morffew via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).


Mittermeier, J. C., Roll, U., Matthews, T. J., & Grenyer, R. (2019). A season for all things: Phenological imprints in Wikipedia usage and their relevance to conservation. PLoS biology, 17(3), e3000146.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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