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A global digital observatory of Earth: exploring the potential of culturomics and iEcology for aquatic conservation

November 10, 2020
Online images, videos and audio of the natural world are being used by conservationists to track changes in global ecosystems. Image: Cindy Shelbey | Flickr Creative Commons

The natural world has never been more closely documented than it is today, not only in scientific studies but also in the public use of digital technologies to capture and share their daily lives. Photographs, videos and audio recordings of nature shared on social media and other online platforms could provide valuable ‘big data’ resources for aquatic conservation, according to the authors of a new journal article.

“These are kinds of data that are produced as a by-product of our daily lives. Someone’s online snorkelling video could help ecologists understand which reef species are present, or the behaviour of recreational users relative to particularly sensitive species,” explains Professor Kate Sherren, a co-author of the study from Dalhousie University, Canada.

Culturomics and iEcology: emerging areas of digital research for conservation

As Professor Sherren suggests, analysing everyday public documentation of the environment could provide researchers with insights into both biodiversity patterns and trends, and human-nature-interactions. This idea has already begun to gain traction in terrestrial conservation, centred around two key emerging research areas: culturomics and iEcology.

“Both research areas emerge from the novel opportunities afforded by the ever-increasing reach of the internet – more than half of the human population has access to the internet these days – and widespread participation in digital platforms like social media,” says co-author Dr. Ricardo Correia from the University of Helsinki, Finland. “They share similar approaches and methods but culturomics focuses on exploring human-nature interactions whereas iEcology focuses on extracting information about nature.”

“Conservation culturomics is focused on human interactions with nature, especially related to conservation issues – for example, societal perceptions, attitudes, values and support for conservation measures, and topics such cultural ecosystem services, tourism, wildlife trade and recreational fishing. iEcology is focused on ecological questions, including distribution of species, population dynamics, behavioural studies and ecosystem processes,” explains lead author Dr. Ivan Jarić, from the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences. “The main advantage of these approaches is that they are based on a huge amount of available data that are already out there, available for research, and allow conducting both local and global studies with very low research costs.”

Reflecting on increased volumes of social media posts from friends and colleagues documenting urban nature during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Correia highlights the potential of culturomics and iEcology approaches for conservation. “The novelty here is that this trend would have probably passed unnoticed were it not for our ability to connect to others across using social media and other digital platforms. This is simple example of a way that such information can be used for the benefit of conservation but the truth is that many of the potential applications still remain to be explored – which is one of the reasons why we are so excited about the future of these research areas.”

Culturomics and iEcology approaches could benefit fisheries management (1); social impact assessments (2); detection, mapping, and monitoring of threatened, rare, and alien species (3); ecosystem status and anthropogenic impacts (4); and the identification of aquatic flagship and umbrella species (5). Image: Jarić et al (2020)

Using digital research methods to support aquatic conservation

In their open-access paper in the PLoS Biology journal, the authors argue that there is untapped potential in applying these concepts to aquatic research, monitoring and conservation planning. They state that whilst marine and freshwater ecosystems cover around 72% of the Earth’s surface, and are disproportionately threatened compared to their terrestrial counterparts, they are widely under-researched and monitored. Could culturomics and iEcology approaches to delving through the masses of online media generated each day offer researchers a valuable new lens on aquatic ecosystems and their dynamics?

The authors highlight six potentially promising areas for the application of these concepts in aquatic environments. First, the detection, mapping, and monitoring of threatened, rare, and alien aquatic species could be supported by analysing online photographs, videos and audio recordings. The authors highlight that these techniques are already being applied to monitor populations of cetaceans in the Mediterranean Sea, Hawaiian monk seals, and Eurasian otters in South Korea.

Second, digital research techniques can help conservationists detect and monitor changes in ecosystems, particularly in response to pressures such as climate change. The authors describe how analyses of Google Images revealed a climate-driven shift in breeding periods of Japanese dace, and documented a parasite-induced coloration phenomenon in Caribbean reef fish. They suggest that whilst such techniques cannot replace traditional field studies, they provide valuable tools for preliminary studies which can help identify priority areas for more intensive research.

Third, culturomics and iEcology techniques could help wildlife and fisheries managers monitor the dynamics and sustainability of fishing and hunting practices and the wildlife trade. For example, digital analyses of photographs and news articles have been used to document trends in fish catch size and composition over time. These analyses can be extended to cover historical data such as digitised texts, images and ship logs to give a longer-term picture of wildlife harvesting over time, often for periods when scientific sampling data are limited.

Fourth, the authors suggest that these digital research techniques could help identify flagship and umbrella species for aquatic conservation, and monitor their potential public reception and interactions. Here, the two approaches could work in tandem: with culturomics identifying flagship species based on societal interest; and iEcology identifying umbrella species by mapping their distributions and overlaps with key habitats and species.

Fifth, the rise of social media as an integral part of global tourism practices has created masses of digital data detailing how people interact with protected areas and landscapes. There is already a growing body of culturomics research using this data, for example on tourist practices and movements in Ramsar wetlands in South Korea and India, and in marine protected areas such as Costa dos Corais in Brazil and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Finally, the authors identify potential in the using these digital research techniques to assess the social impacts of construction and infrastructure development such as hydroelectric projects, wind farms and oil rigs in aquatic environments. Reflecting on her collaboration with Yan Chen using culturomics techniques to assess the social impacts of hydrolectric dam development, Prof. Sherren says, “We were surprised by the nuance that emerged, particularly from the thematic rather than spatial analysis. These were rich stories of how Instagram users currently lived in places facing big change, in one case a dam removal and in another a dam construction, that could easily be used to anticipate impact. The potential use of such methods was clear to update the practice of legislated social impact assessment for large developments, as well as monitoring.”

The collaborative work in the new study led from discussions at two events. The first was a meeting on the topic at the 5th European Congress of Conservation Biology in 2018 in Jyvaskyla, Finland, which led to the formation of an informal research network, which is currently in process of becoming an official working group of the Society of Conservation Biology. The second was at ALTER-Net & EKLIPSE Conference in 2019 in Ghent, Belgium, where Dr. Jarić gave a presentation on the topic at a workshop organised by the Alliance for Freshwater Life.

Challenges and concerns for the uptake of culturomics and iEcology. Image: Jarić et al (2020)

Challenges and outlook for ‘a global digital observatory of Earth’

The research team identify a number of logistical and ethical challenges facing researchers seeking to use culturomics and iEcology techniques. “Digital data can be affected by various cultural, political, and socioeconomic factors, and they may be biased towards more active users and specific social groups,” says co-author Dr. Andrea Soriano-Redondo, from CIBIO/InBio in Portugal. “Also, the uneven spatial coverage of the internet and its users is even more pronounced in the aquatic realms. Generally, our data coverage decreases with distance from shore and water depth, and centres mainly around urban and recreational areas.”

Another key step towards adopting these techniques is the use of new technologies to aid data analysis. “The increasingly diverse applications for aquatic ecosystems will be further enhanced by emerging technologies such as automated web crawling and data processing, machine learning, automatic species identification, apps, and ecoacoustics,” says co-author Dr. Uri Roll from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. “We ultimately envision a global digital observatory of Earth, an online platform established for continuous collection and processing of key digital data from a wide variety of sources, with a near real-time information provided on ecosystem changes and human–nature interactions.”

So, perhaps in a not-too-distant future, every time you snap a picture of a trip to the beach, a video of a river adventure, or a sound recording of water birds you might well be inadvertently helping researchers figure out how aquatic ecosystems are faring. Dr. Jarić suggests that culturomics and iEcology “are rapidly emerging fields – with most of the related papers published over the last 2-3 years – and they are likely to become established as major areas of research within conservation science and ecology in the future.”


Jarić I, Roll U, Arlinghaus R, Belmaker J, Chen Y, China V, et al. (2020) Expanding conservation culturomics and iEcology from terrestrial to aquatic realms. PLoS Biol 18(10): e3000935.

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