You can now ‘friend’ an animal on Facebook and help science while you’re at it

December 23, 2013

Stumpy is a hulking fixture in seas around Ningaloo Reef off the coast of Western Australia. Photographed there often, he has a tranquil, inquisitive demeanor — despite his 10-ton heft.

Following the launch this month of Wild Me, a new social media app, Stumpy is one of almost 5,000 whale sharks that can now be “friended” on Facebook.


(Simon J. Pierce)

Wild Me is designed to build closer ties between people and animals — initially whale sharks, polar bears and manta rays but eventually many species, often vulnerable or endangered ones.

“We want people to see these animals as individuals worth conserving,” says Wild Me app developer Jason Holmberg, who lives in Portland, Ore. “To do that, we wanted a social media network that can span space, time — and species,” he adds.

Wild Me animals have been identified, based on skin patterns or markings, by researchers tracking their movements, often with undersea cameras. A handful, including Stumpy, have been given names. Holmberg plans to add more species — jaguars, white sharks, sperm whales, cheetahs and wild dogs, for example — in coming months.

Wild Me is the latest example of a trend toward using social media to spark interest in nature and conservation.


(Simon J. Pierce)

(Simon J. Pierce)

Two years ago, the nonprofit Explore.org began operating 50 live cameras trained on animal congregations around the world — from playful pandas in Wu Gang, China, to puffins loafing on a ledge in Seal Island, Maine.

“When brown bears start catching salmon or polar bears are migrating, the eruption of tweets on Twitter turn our cams into trending topics — it becomes kind of a virtual flash-mob experience,” says Jason Damata, a spokesman for Explore.org. In July, Explore.org added a snapshot feature so viewers can easily share photos they take from the live feeds. More than 350,000 photos have been shared over social media in the past four months.

Project Noah is another animal-focused network; it relies on people interested in identifying and sharing their own critter images.

In two years, Project Noah has amassed 240,000 members who have shared more than a million photos — marveling, for instance, at the orange-tipped, otherworldly transparency of the jewel caterpillar in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and the unnerving red eyes of the satanic leaf-tailed gecko in Madagascar.


(Gerardo Aizpuru)

(Victoria Hillman)

While Explore.org and Project Noah have proved popular, they had the difficult job of building a nature-based social network from scratch. Wild Me, by contrast, is trying to take nature to the world’s largest social network. “I like that it is plugging into Facebook and utilizing a network that hundreds of millions of people already participate in,” says Project Noah creator Yasser Ansari.

But, Ansari adds, for Wild Me to succeed, it must build a community of active participants. If researchers simply post infrequent updates, the app runs the risk of not enticing users to become invested in what a wild friend is doing.

Holmberg is aware of these potential pitfalls. He says Wild Me plans not only to alert friends when and where a specific animal is sighted but also to post news about its social dynamics and about the scientists conducting the research.

But the biggest hurdle may be getting more wild friends into the network, which started on a shoestring budget of $8,000. (The initial funds came from Wild Me donors and the Cascadia Research Collective, a nonprofit conducting whale research from Olympia, Wash.) Last week, Holm­berg launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise up to $60,000 to convert scientific records into Wild Me profiles — a “Wildbook” — and to continue developing interactive updates for the app.

First, he has to convince researchers, often wary of academic competition, that sharing their hard-won images and data can be both a public engagement and a good fundraising tool. For example, the next version of the app will allow scientists to raise research funds by, say, allowing donors to “adopt” an animal.

Holmberg has some high-profile supporters. Conservation biologist Andrea Marshall, widely known as Queen of Mantas, contributed images and data she collected for her PhD dissertation on giant rays, completed just five years ago. Marshall, who has discovered new manta species and helped secure international laws to protect them, is convinced that adding her manta data to Wild Me will be the single most important thing she does for their conservation. Her diving devotees have already started contributing their own photos to the effort.

“People want to be engaged in conservation, but they get disillusioned when they just sign a petition or donate money and never hear anything on the topic again,” Marshall says. “Getting updates on what an animal is doing or what researchers have learned from it will make participants feel involved and connected,” she says.

Jeffrey Hallo, a Clemson University researcher who studies how interactions with “charismatic species” — those with popular appeal — affect conservation beliefs, agrees with that premise. “Establishing meaningful connections between the public and wildlife is key to effective, long-term conservation efforts,” he says.

And that’s where Wild Me makes the potentially controversial move of treating animals as individual sentient beings. Hallo acknowledges that Wild Me could be criticized for treating animals too much like people, suggesting that they can be “friends” — although he doesn’t share that concern.

In fact, some academics think that conservation efforts haven’t anthropomorphized animals species enough. Meredith Root-Bernstein, a conservation ecologist at the University of Oxford, and colleagues made waves this year when they suggested that anthropomorphizing only intelligent, social or suffering animals, such as primates and whales, suggests that the majority of species aren’t worthy of conservation. She says Wild Me offers a way to give lesser-known species a higher profile. “Engagement comes from learning about species as individuals and what their lives are like,” she says, adding that she thinks all the Wild Me individuals should have names — perhaps even having “friends” vote on names — to help users feel connected to them.

Scientists realize that endangered species need the public to be engaged. Take sea horses. There are only about a dozen researchers worldwide monitoring the 48 sea horse species that are considered threatened. “We know almost nothing about half those species; they are considered data-deficient,” says Amanda Vincent, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia. In October, she helped launch the iSeahorse Explore app for smartphones to solicit data from the public.

In just a month, almost 200 people have used the app to upload photos and location data about the animals. “The first wave of responses has been really exciting. We’re getting a lot of information on species we knew next to nothing about,” Vincent says.

Realizing that a community was quickly building around the app, where users discuss observations, particularly identification issues, Vincent and colleagues have begun to field-test tools that will teach users how to make the high-quality, reproducible and consistent measures necessary to analyze trends.

“I hope we’re engaging people so they come to respect and love sea horses,” Vincent says. “To do that, conservationists need to be better storytellers.”

Stanford University ecologist Steve Palumbi agrees. “We in conservation circles worry about technology isolating people from the amazing cast of characters in the natural environment,” he says. “If these apps use the same technology to reverse that trend, I say great.”

Gewin is a science writer based Portland, Ore.

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