Now we can post a tweet instead of posting a dead bird to a scientist
Everyone now knows that there are downsides to social media. However, a positive impact is the way it connects nature enthusiasts.
Twitter is often used for conservation awareness campaigns, while Facebook has become a meeting place for many wildlife groups and individuals. Most environmental NGOs have impressive websites where they can explain their goals and generate interest in their topic.
Wildlife photographers and artists can share their work on social media, while scientists can easily share their findings and meet other scientists. It hasn’t always been easy for nature lovers.
Before the Internet, it was difficult for naturalists to find or form conservation or field clubs. Even in the 1990s, when I was studying zoology, wildlife clubs relied on physical posters, newspapers or magazines to reach their audience. As for correspondence between scientists and recorders, epistolary writing has been the only option for centuries.
This can be illustrated by a single story of the advent of bird migration research. In the 1880s, a naturalist from County Wicklow, Richard Manliffe Barrington, wanted to study bird migration – most Victorians believed that birds such as swifts and swallows disappeared into the sea in winter to hibernate under the waves.
Barrington found that lighthouse keepers often awoke to find dead birds that had hit their headlights during the night. Intrigued to find out what species came and went, Barrington wrote to 58 lighthouse and lightship keepers around our coast and asked if they’d mail him a wing and a leg – or if the bird was rare, the whole body – from everything “killed”. striking the birds they found at the base of their headlights.
Today, a simple photo on a smartphone would probably suffice for identification, but back then Barrington had to rely on his postman to deliver these very strange packages in pursuit of science. Between 1881 and 1897, Barrington received over 4,000 specimens in the mail, which he carefully labeled as puffins, kestrels, snow buntings, starlings, and lapwings, to name a few.
The collection is now kept at the Natural History Museum. Today, these keepers of the Irish lights would be called citizen scientists. Barrington’s book,was published in 1900, but bird parts continued to arrive in the mail to his house even after Barrington’s death in 1915. Biodiversity loggers became addicted to the recording.
An Post continued to unwittingly deliver envelopes filled with dead animals and plants sent by avid naturalists to the National Botanical Gardens or Natural History Museum until technology changed everything over the past 20 years. Today we all carry smartphones with amazing cameras, and Facebook groups such as Wild Flora and Fauna of Ireland or Insects/Invertebrates of Ireland are great for ID queries.
We now have a state-of-the-art National Biodiversity Data Center which stores a vast amount of biodiversity data – over four million records of over 16,000 species, and counting – well more than could ever be efficiently managed or searched if stored in dusty old filing cabinets.
The data center also organizes various surveys that you can participate in, including monitoring programs for butterflies, bumblebees, rare plants, dragonflies and garden biodiversity.
Technology has completely changed the ease with which people can get involved in recording our wildlife: there’s even a mobile app. You can download the Biodiversity Data Capture application on your smartphone. Find out more about becoming a Biodiversity Logger at www.biodiversityireland.ie
- Juanita Browne has written a number of wildlife books including My First Book of Irish Animals and The Great Big Book of Irish Wildlife. IrishWildlifeBooks@gmail.com