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Study Shows Wikipedia Could Serve As Early Warning Device For Species Extinction

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Internet traffic could reflect the presence of certain species in the wild. Researchers found that trends in Wikipedia views could be used to determine which species could be on the verge of extinction.   ( Uri Roll )

An international team of scientists has discovered that Wikipedia can aid conservationists in identifying which species are in danger of going extinct.

In a new study, they discussed how the volume of internet traffic of a wildlife-related page receives at a given period could be used as an early warning device that the number of a certain species of animal or plant might be dwindling.

Accurate Monitoring Of Species

The researchers reviewed about three years worth of internet views for 31,715 species across 245 language editions of Wikipedia. They found that, for seasonal species, the volume of page views, as well as timing, could serve as a gauge for their presence and abundance in the wild.

This means that a significant dip in internet searches for a particular species compared to the year prior could mean that fewer of them could be thriving and they could be on the verge of extinction. Internet searches could reflect changes in nature before any scientific research could be conducted.

The researchers said that they were quite surprised by their findings.

"People are becoming increasingly detached from nature and as a result, we didn't really expect their activity online to respond to patterns in the natural world," stated John Mittermeier, a Ph.D. student from the University of Oxford and the lead author of the study. "To see that online activity often correlates strongly with natural phenomena suggests that people are paying attention to the world around them, and from a conservation perspective that is really exciting."

The researchers found several other patterns from the data they analyzed that could aid in future research. They discovered that cultural events like Thanksgiving, for example, draws a spike in internet searches for wild turkeys. The television event "Shark Week" can also drive interest online for shark-related pages.

Internet Interest Could Help Scientists

The researchers also stated that Wikipedia data could paint a pretty accurate picture of nature, especially because tracking every species around the world is still almost impossible. It could also offer conservationists an insight on which species are most popular and determine which efforts would be warmly supported by the public.

"[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," stated Richard Grenyer, an associate professor of biodiversity from the University of Oxford.

The study involved researchers from the University of Birmingham, the Ben-Gurion University, and the University of Oxford. It was published in PLOS Biology on March 5.

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