Starlings go tweet

Forget Big Brother – it turns out Big Scientist is watching you, but it’s all in the name of ecological research.

In a paper published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, a team led by Adam Hart from the University of Gloucestershire in the UK reports on the benefits of mining Twitter to collect data on natural phenomena.

The micro-blogging platform is, of course, designed to facilitate the desire of millions of people to report events (be they major or trivial) the moment they witness them.

Its uses for delivering and receiving information relating to natural disasters such as earthquakes, wild fires and floods have already been established, but until now its ability to monitor non-life-threatening biological phenomena had not been tested.

Hart and his colleagues decided to gauge the platform’s reliability by mining tweets related to three published studies documenting different UK events – winged ant emergence, autumnal house spider sightings, and starling murmurations.

The results, over all, were pretty good. This was in large part because Twitter users tend to post stuff pretty much as it happens. Each post is date- and time-stamped, which meant the researchers were able to compare them to the date-specific data contained in the journal papers.

They found that not only was the Twitter data accurate in reporting the emergence of house spiders and flying ants, it also contained additional useful information. Many of the tweets contained photographs, which taken together allowed the researchers to accurately calculate the gender ratios of the arachnids.

“It is perhaps the immediacy of Twitter, the ‘urgency’ of the phenomena and the desire to connect with other users that have produced so many usable tweets,” says Hart.

“The emergence of winged ants is also popular in the media and hashtags like #flyingantday often trend on Twitter.”

The data were useful for pinning down the time and date of the ant and spider events, but less useful for pinning down location. Unless specifically activated, Twitter does not include longitude and latitude in post metadata, and, anyway, users do not necessarily post from the exact location where they made their observation.

Starling murmurations, however, were a different matter. Perhaps because they are physically large things, and take place high in the sky, most tweets reporting them mentioned at least general location.

Hart and his colleagues think tweets could be useful for identifying wide a range of ecological phenomena in the future.

“Twitter can provide a valuable tool for phenological studies of charismatic events and species,” he says.

“Dog owners noting ticks on their animals, or the timing of frog spawning or foxes mating are just some of the questions that could be explored.”

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