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Your Hysterical Tweet About That Spider in Your Sink Could Prove Useful for Science

A new study suggests mining social media for phenology data is fairly reliable and could assist researchers tracking how rapidly the world is changing

A mesmerizing murmuration of starlings (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Social media over-sharers can be annoying, especially if they gum up your Facebook or Twitter feed with pictures of every noodle they’ve ever slurped or every well-lit selfie they’ve ever posed for. But it turns out that obsessive personal log might have some scientific value. Jonathan Amos at the BBC reports that a new study tested how well Twitter captures animal behavior, like spider habits and the emergence of flying ants, and found that it has potential as a decent research tool.

For the study, published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, ecologists from the University of Gloucestershire mined Twitter for data on three UK phenomena, the emergence of winged ants for mating flights in the summer, the appearance of house spiders in fall and the occurrence of starling murmurations, those crazy synchronized flights of thousands of the birds that take place at dusk in autumn and winter.

They then compared the Twitter-mined data to previously published studies about the creatures. What they found is that Twitter users who uploaded photos did a pretty good job at detecting these natural patterns, creating a data set that more or less corresponded with past research. They were even able to show the correct sex ratio of house spiders.

“With caveats, it turns out to be very reliable,” lead author Adam Hart tells Amos. “In the future, our tendency to share everything could be an absolute goldmine for scientists using this type of ‘passive citizen science.’”

According to a press release, Twitter has some built-in advantages for scientists: The tweets are time-stamped, and when it comes to "urgent" tweets, like the discovery of a spider in the sink, people tend to post what they have observed soon after instead of waiting a few days or weeks. The hashtags, such as #flyingantday, which occasional trend on the social media network, are also useful for tracking data and eliciting even more responses.

There are also some problems with the system. In particular, people do not tend to share their exact location via Twitter and relying on geographic information listed in a user’s bio is not reliable. But the researchers think that a recently launched “share precise location” tool, which adds latitude and longitude to tweets could help change that.

Though the system handled the insects well, when it came to starlings, the results were mixed. Most people viewing the crazy aerial displays do mention their location, which can attract more viewers. However, unlike the insect tweets, the starling posts didn’t really yield much scientifically useful information, like whether birds of prey, such as the sparrowhawk, were present during the flight. The researchers speculate that could be because the motivations behind the tweets are different. While those posting photos of a spider on the wall might be heavy social media users, accustomed to sharing every detail, those going to the countryside to watch starlings might not be “typical tweeters.” Though the motivations behind tweets were not studied for this paper, the researchers “strongly suggest" future investigation into this as it "would be a sensible approach if Twitter mining is to be used for ecology research.”

Similar social media-mining has already been used to help detect earthquakes and study political sentiment. But Hart thinks it also has a big future in phenology, the study of when things happen in nature, for instance when flowers bloom, birds migrate and leaves fall. In the past, the journals of naturalists, scientists and gardeners helped keep track of the changes that happened throughout the year. But as climate change begins to upend the world we know, the once-quaint science has become much more important for researchers who want to monitor more precisely how rapidly the world is changing. Luckily for them, climate change will likely make spiders bigger and faster, meaning that if current trends hold, there will probably be more spider photos coming to Twitter than researchers can handle.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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