Tweet tweet: Using social media to help bird conservation

Reference: Hausmann, A., Toivonen, T., Fink, C., Heikinheimo, V., Tenkanen, H., Butchart, S.H.M., Brooks, T.M. and E. Di Minin. 2019. Assessing global popularity and threats to Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas using social media data. Science of the Total Environment, 638: 617-623.

Scientists use all kinds of different tools to study environmental questions – microscopes, field probes, fishing nets, and many more. One new tool that many scientists are starting to use to answer our pressing environmental concerns is your twitter account. Social media is becoming a powerful tool to create large amounts of data compiled from across global to look at environmental problems in a way we haven’t before.

One group of researchers is using social media to address our frightening loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity relates to the variety of animals, plants, etc. in a given area. Biodiversity is important because the more different species in an ecosystem the better that ecosystem is equipped to survive threats such as disease, and changing conditions from pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.

Across the globe, conservation areas, where regulations are in place to prevent some threats to biodiversity, provide important habitats for thousands of different species to thrive. However, conservation areas often draw in tourists, and sites that feature birds are no exception. But how popular are bird conservation areas globally? Popularity can mean more money and awareness of threats facing certain species but also poses increased risks from human disturbance.

Geotag For The Win

Using publicly available data, researchers mined posts from nearly 11 million global users from Flickr (130,827) and Twitter (10,662,552 ) that as a whole generated 1,322,591 geolocated posts from February 2016 to June 2017 in Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). For each of the 12,765 IBAs they looked at, the research team measured “user density” by counting the number of geolocated posts within each IBA. The study calculated these numbers for areas across the globe, so researchers were able to measure user density for different continents and types of biomes. Other factors such as accessibility, number of bird species, amenities at the site, and the economy of the area were also measured to understand what factors might influence user density.

Figure 1. A crab plover (Dromas ardeola) – a bird found in an IBA with a threat score of “very high” in Madagascar. Source: Photo by Al Badush on


In addition to information about visitors, the research team also looked at how threatened species were in each area. Each IBA also has unique challenges that can threaten the biodiversity of that area. For example, an IBA in Madagascar is threatened by agriculture and pollution. This study looked at 13 different human-induced threats such as invasive species, land development, and geological events.

Convenience Counts

The most popular IBAs were in Europe and Asia, and in temperate biomes – habitats such as forests or grasslands. While user density varied quite a bit, on average there were 491 users detected per square kilometer at these sites. The researchers found that 1) how accessible the site was, 2) the amenities at the site, and 3) the population of people in the area impacted how popular a site would be. Interestingly, sites with fewer species were more popular overall.

Figure 2. Social media user density in Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas by continent – recreated from Hausmann et al. 2019 (Open access).

In 17% of the sites that had high or very high levels of user density the sites also had very high threat levels. In other words, some of the most popular IBAs were also the ones that faced the most human-induced challenges.

Double-Edged Sword

Understanding what conservation sites are most popular can lead to more funding, and more awareness of why protecting bird species is vital to maintaining biodiversity. It also can help us understand how large amounts of yearly visitors may negatively impact the site. Both of these pieces are important for developing sustainable conservation strategies. With the massive amounts of social media data being generated every day, it’s clear that we have another tool in our toolbox to understand our environment.


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Brittany Maule

I earned my Master's in Biology from Ball State University in 2017, studying how everyday human products like the compounds in bug spray and Tylenol affect the organisms that live in our streams and rivers. I'm interested in how human pollutants play a role in our aquatic ecosystems, especially since we use them for so many important functions! Currently, I work at Green Seal - a nonprofit that strives to make all sorts of products safer for human health and the environment. When I'm not working on my science communication stuff, I can be found hiking or curled up with a book and warm mug of tea.

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