Social media helps researchers explore threats to biodiversity

New global data sets from social media reveal threats to biodiversity in Important Bird Areas. Highly accessible sites are more exposed to human pressure, including threats to biodiversity, study finds.

A new research produced by a group of HELSUS researchers shows how social media can provide new information about sites with high biodiversity importance and how this can help to detect potential threats and pressure to those sites. The study provides a first assessment of visitation patterns to Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) on a global scale by using geo-located data mined from social media. This wide scale analysis of human activities in conservation areas provides crucial information about human-nature interaction in vulnerable areas around the world. The authors of the article argue that there is a great need to effectively manage and monitor human activities in these sites for the persistence of species to meet global conservation targets. However, in assessing opportunities and threats to biodiversity there has been a persistent problem of scarcity of sufficient datasets.

Most of us, especially in the Global North, use social media actively on a day-to-day basis and, especially while travelling, we share our real-time experiences during for example nature-based recreation. Regardless of the prevalence of users, the potential for utilizing social media data to assess use, attractiveness and pressure on key sites for global biodiversity has not been explored before. This research shows that such information can help us to assess human activities and human-nature interactions cost-effectively at an unprecedented spatio-temporal scale. The research also argues for the importance of studying tourism in regard to biodiversity conservation, as conservation efforts might benefit from it. Tourism around birdlife in IBAs may help promote sustainable development, and socio-economic support to conservation management actions, such as minimizing disturbance on foraging sites, building viewing platforms, and awareness raising, are likely to be important to minimize pressure to the areas.


Mining social media data for biodiversity conservation

The research fills the gap of analyzing human pressure and activities in Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas by using geo-located posts from Flickr and Twitter. The data from different social media outlets was used in the study to:

  1. Assess IBA conservation area popularity globally, continentally and at the biome (distinct biological community) level
  2. Investigate what geographical and biological variables best explain which IBA’s are popular among tourists globally, continentally and at the biome level; and
  3. Identify sites potentially under high pressure, by combining social media data with information on threat intensity.

The research utilized over 1 million posts generated by 131 000 users on Flickr, and around 66 million posts generated by around 11 million users on Twitter. These posts were obtained within IBAs worldwide during 2016–2017.

The study found that 17% of all IBAs assessed to be under very high threat also received high visitation. The results show in which IBAs enhanced monitoring should be implemented to reduce potential visitation risks to sites of conservation concern for birds, and to harness the potential benefits of tourism for conservation.

Results also showed that sites that received higher density of users were more accessible, had higher population density and provided more tourist facilities, such as transport and accommodation. Highly accessible sites are also more exposed to human pressure, which may cause disturbance to species and the environment, threatening biodiversity. This is especially so in sites of importance for sensitive species. In addition, IBAs with higher user densities had lower species richness, but this was thought to be simply because tropical regions have both higher species diversity and lower social media use.

Together with accessibility, socio-economic background of countries also affects tourists' visitation and social media use in natural areas worldwide. The research confirmed that pattern. Results showed that GDP of countries explained user densities in IBAs only in some regions (such as Europe, North America, Australia & Oceania and temperate biomes), while it was not a significant variable in other areas. However, the group emphasizes that attention should be paid not to increase human pressure at these sites, particularly where conservation value is the highest.

Novel way to explore biodiversity threats

By using fine-scale geo-referenced data from social media, the study provided new understanding of global patterns of visitation to Key Biodiversity Areas, by revealing both popularity (recreational value) and exposure to human pressure or benefits from human visitation in important sites for bird conservation. These results can help prioritize monitoring and management efforts aimed at promoting opportunities to support biodiversity conservation through recreation and tourism while minimizing potential negative impacts. 

Read the full article here.   


Anna Hausmann, Tuuli Toivonen, Christoph Fink, Vuokko Heikinheimo, Henrikki Tenkanen, Stuart H.M. Butchart, Thomas M. Brooks, Enrico Di Minin

Reference: Hausmann, A, Toivonen, T, Fink, C, Heikinheimo, VV, Tenkanen, H, Butchart, S, Brooks, T & Di Minin, E 2019, 'Assessing global popularity and threats to Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas using social media data', Science of the Total Environment, vol. 683, pp. 617-623.