The Coming Age of the Internet Naturalist

Scientists are trying to figure out how to turn our cameras into species discovery engines.
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Three years ago, Shaun Winterton was looking at photos of bugs on Flickr. Winterton is an expert on a type of insect called lacewings—beautiful, strange creatures with long, translucent (and, yes, lace-like) wings. There are more than 13,000 photos on Flickr with "lacewing" in the description, but one in particular caught Winterton’s attention. It was a photo from Malaysia, taken by a man named Guek Hock Ping, and it captured an animal with unusual blue spots on its wings. 

Winterton contacted Guek, and asked whether he could go and take more photos of the bug—but it wasn’t until a year later that Guek was able to find another specimen. When he did, however, Winterton realized that he was looking at a previously undiscovered species of insect. A year later, Winterton and Guek published a paper together, describing Semachrysa jade. 

Their finding points to a new kind of naturalism—one aided by the computers so many of us carry with us as we live our lives. With millions of cameras and smartphones all over the planet pointed at the natural world, the chances that somebody might catch a new species or an unknown behavior have skyrocketed. And scientists are increasingly trying to tap into that vast pool of information. Wading into the billions of photos and videos shared on social media isn’t easy—but if researchers can harness our cameras, they may be able to unlock a huge amount of information about our world.

Take that video of ants making a daisy chain to pull a millipede that, last week, had scientists scratching their heads. The footage showed a behavior that entomologists hadn’t seen before. And it was shot by an amateur somewhere in Southeast Asia.

But, then, it's not just new species or behaviors that smartphones are documenting. Sometimes a photograph with a geotagged location might be the only record of a species in that location. "I’ve come across blog posts that are making new geographic records, I’ve had tweets that are the first and currently only published records of some species," says Morgan Jackson, an entomologist at the University of Guelph. 

These are the kinds of things that citizen science advocates dream of: collaborations between amateurs and trained scientists that produce real, published results. But citizen science projects are really hard to design—they have to be fun, interesting, and not too difficult for participants, while also being robust and scientifically useful. Winterton’s discovery of a new lacewing species is almost a serendipitous citizen science project—one that emerged not by design, but because a human had trawled Flickr and noticed something odd.

But how do you replicate that? There are more than eight million photos on Flickr tagged with the word "insect." Even if you try to drill down to things like "butterfly," "spider," or "beetle," you’re left with a crushing wall of photos, most of which aren’t going to be useful. That’s just Flickr. There is almost certainly a ton of useful data squirreled away in tweets and Facebook albums and YouTube videos all over the place. It’s finding it that’s the problem.

"You know how hard it is to find a certain Tweet—so trying to find one you don’t know exists is nearly impossible," Jackson says. 

Here’s an example. This weekend, a strange-looking spider perched itself on the bow of my kayak. When we stopped on the side of the river for a snack, I snapped a photo of my spindly masthead and sent it off to Twitter, asking: "Bug people, what is this thing?" Within a few minutes I was informed that it was a Tetragnathid, also known as a "long-jawed spider." If you search Instagram, there is even a tag for "tetragnathidae," with 28 photos in it.

"Some of those aren’t tetragnathids, but that’s okay," Jackson says. He’s just happy people are tagging bugs more specifically than I did by saying "what is this thing."

Rose Eveleth/Instagram

Jackson thinks that if scientists can teach people just a little bit more about bugs—or any animal or plant, really—users could help filter some of the pictures they are taking. In his ideal world, I would know enough about spiders to be able to identify the "thing" on my kayak to the family level—tetragnathidae, in this case—and tag it for scientists to find. 

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Rose Eveleth is a writer, producer, and designer based in New York. 

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