Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie
Recently, I was wrapping up some revisions on a phenology paper and to comply with the journal’s style for taxonomy, I needed to know the authority on a species of white violets that a Maine hunting guide had noted in his diaries in the mid-twentieth century. Obviously, I turned to Wikipedia.
Ecologists who study phenology (or anything!) use Wikipedia all the time, but Dr John C. Mittermeier and his co-authors take this practice to a whole new level in their paper A season for all things: Phenological imprints in Wikipedia usage and their relevance to conservation. This study, published in PLoS Biology earlier this month, uses Wikipedia page views to trace when humans show seasonal interest in the natural world. For over 30,000 species in 245 languages —which amassed 2.33 billion pageviews between July 2015 and June 2018 — they found some strong seasonal signals linking how and when people interact with plants and animals online.
“The idea for this study happened somewhat by chance to be honest,” Dr Mittermeier confides. “I was collecting Wikipedia pageview data on different animals as part of another study (hopefully this should be published soon!) and on a whim I decided to plot a time-series of daily views to see what it looked like.” As an ornithologist, he was drawn to migratory bird data and his whimsical time-series plot for migratory bird page views peaked near its ecological migration season. This was the prototype for a figure in the PLoS Biology paper. Mittermeier says, “this [plot] made me curious as what other plants and animals might show seasonality in their views and how widespread these patterns might be in general.”
While searching for migratory birds on Wikipedia seems categorically different from actual birding, Mittermeier and his colleagues found strong correlations between these two activities. They compared trends in Wikipedia page views to eBird records. In this analysis, eBird frequency records are like “outdoor pageviews” of bird species. “It was easy to match the eBird taxonomy to the taxonomy used by Wikipedia,” Mittermeier says, “and the way in which seasonal abundance information was structured in eBird is very accessible.” Birders, like Wikipedia users, are surprisingly great at generating big data.
Just under half of the bird species in the dataset had page view patterns correlated with seasonal eBird records. But, for species that occurred in more than one of the four language/countries (Italy, Germany, Sweden, and the U.S.), just over a third showed a significant positive relationship between eBird frequency and pageviews across multiple languages. All of the countries in this analysis are in the northern hemisphere and experiencing basically the same seasons, so I asked Mittermeier if this result indicated that some birds are more “seasonally famous” in one location? He agreed that “some species do seem to be more ‘seasonally famous’ than others, meaning that certain species may be viewed more as seasonal indicators. This could be a result of the behavior of the species (i.e. something about their seasonality is particularly visible and obvious), some sort of cultural context (maybe the species featured in a well known book or fairy tale and had a seasonal association there, for example), or some sort of combination of both of these. Comparing how seasonal indicator species are similar or different across languages would be a great way to gain insight into what leads to a species acquiring this significance. I think this is a fascinating question and one that would be very interesting to explore further.”
But, the paper is not limited to birds, and human interest in animal and plant Wikipedia pages is not always aligned with ecological events. Figure 2 shows a spike in shark species page views that aligns with Shark Week. There are cultural drivers to the phenology of when humans search out certain species on Wikipedia. Mittermeier shares that, “The Wild Turkey was actually the first page that I looked at in relation to cultural events. Turkeys have such a powerful association with the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States I was curious as to whether this would impact people’s online searches (it does as we show in the figure!)” When the turkey hunch worked out, Mittermeier started brainstorming other cultural or marketing events associated with plants or animals that could impact online interest. “This was right around the time that Shark Week was going on over the summer and that’s why I decided to check if that had an impact on pageviews for Great Whites.”
While the eBird community is full of self-proclaimed bird nerds, and eBird data has been used in peer-reviewed papers for over a decade, the programming around Shark Week has a decidedly different relationship to science and natural history. Dr. David Shiffman, a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow in Conservation Biology at Simon Fraser University, studying how information related to sharks is spread on the internet, notes, “Shark Week has a well documented problematic relationship with the truth, spreading nonsense to its massive audience that I and other scientists have to spend years correcting.” I asked him what he thought about the Wikipedia-Shark Week connection that Mittermeier and coauthors uncovered. He says, “the temporary spike in public interest in sharks that Shark Week causes is something that the marine biology community takes advantage of to spread actual facts. This paper provides further evidence that scientists wishing to engage in public outreach about their area of expertise need to know their audience, and know that there are times of year when people are more likely to be receptive to learning about that topic!”
Indeed, these seasonal patterns in interest — whether for migratory birds, Thanksgiving turkeys, or sharks — can be leveraged by conservation practitioners to affect policy and outreach. Research into the public attitudes about species, including how they rise and fall seasonally, is important. Mittermeier and his coauthors write: “Seasonal changes in human interest in plants and animals can have an important role in conservation in at least three ways: (a) by identifying species for which phenology forms a component of their ‘value’, (b) by helping to reveal differences or similarities in how species are valued across cultural groups, and (c) by providing temporal awareness to help maximize the effectiveness of conservation marketing campaigns.” I’ve experienced this myself in a small way: when I publish papers on spring wildflowers in the dead of winter, the press releases don’t get much traction.
And finally, I had to address the paradox of scholarly work based on Wikipedia. I’ve TA-ed intro Biology labs and scrawled “not peer-reviewed” next to many Wikipedia-base citations in lab reports. Mittermeier laughed with me, “My mother used to teach junior high school and was always telling her students not to cite Wikipedia and now here I am using it as the source for my research.”
Mittermeier JC, Roll U, Matthews TJ, Grenyer R (2019) A season for all things: Phenological imprints in Wikipedia usage and their relevance to conservation. PLoS Biol 17(3): e3000146. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000146