Social media revolutionises biodiversity conservation efforts

Nature photographers on social media are proving to be instrumental in protecting biodiversity in South Asia, with the potential for this method to be adopted on a global scale. Led by Dr Shawan Chowdhury from UQ’s School of the Environment, an international team utilized Facebook nature photography groups in Bangladesh to contribute valuable data to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility database.

Impressively, the team uncovered a staggering 44,000 photos featuring nearly 1,000 animal species, including numerous birds and insects. Of these, a remarkable 288 species were identified as threatened in Bangladesh. This extensive collection of images has significantly enhanced habitat mapping throughout the country, where a mere 4.6% of land is currently designated as protected.

The research yielded exciting results, identifying additional high-priority conservation areas encompassing 4,000 square kilometers for birds and 10,000 square kilometers for butterflies. Notably, the team discovered distribution data for hundreds of endangered species that was previously unaccounted for in Bangladesh, marking a significant breakthrough for conservation efforts in the region.

Dr Chowdhury emphasized the potential impact of this discovery, stating, “This could change the way scientists gather biodiversity information in the future, especially in regions where there is a lack of reliable and up-to-date structured monitoring to inform conservation efforts.”

In Australia, similar efforts are underway to employ social media posts for tracking pest species. Dr Chowdhury explained, “A South Asian butterfly, known as the tawny coster, made its way to Australia in 2012. By searching for additional locality records on Facebook, we were able to analyze the movement, ecology, and colonization status of this species. Our findings revealed that it expanded at an average rate of 135 kilometers per year between 2012 and 2020.”

Co-author Professor Richard Fuller from UQ highlighted the role of social media companies in this transformative process, noting, “There is currently no automated way to collect this information, and it was a very arduous task for us to do it manually. We hope our research can inspire the development of technology such as an app that transfers biodiversity data posted on Facebook directly to the global biodiversity databases. This way, conservation scientists can easily access that data and use it.”

This study has been published in scientific journals, including Bioscience, One Earth, and Conservation Biology. Dr Chowdhury, who is also affiliated with the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, and the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, continues to pioneer innovative approaches to biodiversity conservation.