The Squirrel Stars of YouTube


Nutty for squirrel videos? You’re not alone. There are over 87 million results for “squirrel videos” on Google. Fans of squirrel videos include humans and pets alike. A quick internet search shows a wide array of popular videos, including hiding nuts in the fur of a Bernese Mountain dog, hopping into model airplanes, and the increasingly popular- videos of squirrels for pets to watch to qualm separation anxiety. And what’s not to love? Squirrels exist in nearly every terrestrial habitat on earth, and their zany behaviors make them highly entertaining to watch.


Animal behavior researchers increasingly turn to YouTube as a database for animal videography. Social media is a powerful tool for documenting landscapes and ecosystems. Photographs, videos, and other publicly available social media are of interest to many conservation researchers. For one, online sharing platforms allow for instant access to videos worldwide. Researchers restricted by travel can utilize media from around the world to better understand ecological niches. Narrated YouTube videos are especially helpful for understanding human perceptions of nature- and the complex relationships shared between humans and other animals that co-occupy shared habitats.


Scientists are now analyzing YouTube videos to try to figure out what makes an animal “YouTube-worthy”. Researchers from the Poznań University of Life Sciences and Polish Academy of Sciences used YouTube videos to better understand human interactions with two squirrel species: red and grey squirrels. It’s worth noting that in Europe, red squirrel populations have greatly declined due to competition from the larger and more aggressive grey squirrel. The goal of this research was to determine if higher human presence (urban environments vs. forested environments) was linked to higher abundances of squirrel videos. Scientists speculated that squirrels that lived in urban environments are less skittish in the presence of humans, and therefore would have more videos on YouTube.

Say Cheese! Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Nuts & Bolts


Researchers found over 650 videos of European red and grey squirrels uploaded between 2005 and 2016 on YouTube. Of those videos, 565 videos contained red squirrels from 19 countries and 188 videos contained grey squirrels from 3 countries. Videos were categorized by squirrel species, habitat, and types of animal behavior. Behavior types included feeding, hoarding, aggression, grooming, movement, calling, interaction with animals, interaction with humans, and others.  The researchers were interested in the following question: What are the factors that make humans interested in recording and uploading YouTube videos about squirrels?


Video Killed the Radio Star

YouTube holds a wide variety of squirrel behavior videos, and those behaviors were strongly associated with habitat. Surprisingly, videos of red squirrels were more abundant, but more videos were abundant in urban settings for both squirrel species. This study speculates that this may be due to greater population density and more intrigue by animals in city parks. The behaviors more often recorded in both species and both habitats were feeding and movement. Red squirrels were most often recorded while they were foraging and moving. But certain behaviors, such as hoarding, grooming, and calling, were much more common in forested habitats. Red squirrels were also seldom recorded as interacting with humans in forests. Grey squirrels were more often to groom and exhibit calling behaviors in forest environments, and interaction with humans was only seen in urban environments. These findings showed a shift in likely behaviors depending on the environment, which supported prior researchers’ ideas on squirrel behavior.


What does it all mean? It depends on what you want to know. Until now, most of our understanding of squirrel behavior was limited to several studies. These studies were incredibly thorough in tracking behavior but were limited by the small number of “participants”, or rather squirrels with tracking devices attached to them.  YouTube videos are a great resource for studying animal behavior, particularly in urban environments or when larger datasets are needed. The abundance and diversity of videos not only showcase animal behavior but could also be important tools for tracking a species population range. Being able to rely on YouTube videos as a reputable data source saves researchers time and money on animal behavior studies.


It must be noted that there are drawbacks to using YouTube videos for data mining. We don’t often know what triggers an animal behavior before footage is captured, and video availability is often dependent upon human access to an environment. But even with these things in mind, media sharing platforms like YouTube bolster smaller datasets and can add unique insight that is often missed by smaller-scale studies.  So, keep those cameras rolling, animal enthusiasts! As long as you’re not creating a disturbance, sharing social media footage can enrich our knowledge on animal behavior and human interactions.


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Michaela Cashman

Michaela Cashman is a Ph.D. student at the University of Rhode Island and an ORISE participant at the US EPA Atlantic Ecology Division. Her current research focuses on microplastic isolation from marine and estuarine sediments. Other research interests include soil science, hydrogeology, and emerging contaminants. When not in the lab, Michaela enjoys creating stained glass windows, watching live music, and playing the clarinet in her community band. Follow her on twitter for research updates and occasional animal GIFs. twitter: @EnviroMichaela

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