Social Media Could Help Save Species on the Verge of Extinction

Image: A Grand Cayman Blue Iguana, one of the world's most endangered iguanas

A Grand Cayman Blue Iguana, one of the world's most endangered iguanas. Getty Images file

Dodo, meet Instagram.

Scientists think that the same technology that brought us the selfie could be used to help save some of the thousands of species tottering on the brink of extinction around the world.

While an untold number of butt selfies and pictures of food are posted on social networks daily, people are also snapping images of birds, flowers, and other creatures that can help researchers who keep a close eye on flora and fauna at the tipping point.

The stream of data helps scientists map where the world's endangered species are and where they need to be conserved, said Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and the lead author of a new paper on the decline of global biodiversity.

Today, species are vanishing 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than they would in the absence of humans, he said. Reporting Thursday in the journal Science, he and his colleagues calculate the extinction rate today as at least 1 living thing per every 1 million species per year. The death spiral is expected to accelerate, Pimm said to NBC News, "because we know a very large fraction of species are on the verge of extinction."

The good news, the researchers write, that a combination of species databases, maps, and crowd-sourced data on where different animals are seen are merging to "enable scientists and policy-makers to understand the status, trends, and threats to Earth's biodiversity and to act accordingly to protect it."

Key to this technological fix are online social networks such as eBird and iNaturalist where people post pictures of birds and plants they spot through the course of their daily lives. Members of the scientific community validate and describe what has been posted and use the data to understand where species are and how to protect them.

"What we're seeing is a real win-win where the everyday people are getting a window into what are these things that (they are) seeing and scientists are saying 'Wow, we are getting access to this huge army of field biologists around the world,'" said Scott Loarie, a co-director of iNaturalist and a global ecology researcher with the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University in California..

Far from home

An example of the power of iNaturalist came on April 14, 2012, when a high school student posted a picture of a collard lizard scrambling in some rocks at Howarth Park in Santa Rosa, Calif. The posting grabbed the attention of scientists because the lizard, native to the desert east of the Sierra Nevada, was far from its usual home.


Documenting such expansions is essential for the conservation of biodiversity because a main driver of extinction is the human introduction of species to new habitats where they out compete the natives, according to Pimm and colleagues. The introductions can be intentional, such as stocking rainbow trout in lakes and streams to enhance sport-fishing; or inadvertent, such as the lizard.

"Nice job on your Research-Grade Collard Lizard observation Skylar! This is such an amazing find since this genus is not even supposed to exist here!" posted Julie Byrne, a graduate student at Sonoma State University studying, among other things, the impact of climate change on lizards.

Loarie, who also commented in the thread, told NBC News that scientists suspect the lizard was a pet that was either released or escaped into the park, but added that the park is also the type of habitat the critter is expected to expand into as the planet warms.

"Next thing you know we will have expansion of that lizard into a place like this," he said. "So this was a type of scientific discovery that was made, but it was based on a kid exploring his backyard."