Social media as a data resource for #monkseal conservation
The prevalence of social media platforms that share photos and videos could prove useful for wildlife research and conservation programs. When social media users post pictures and videos of animals, near real-time data like individual identification, sex, location, or other information are made accessible to scientists. These data can help inform researchers about animal occurrence, behavior, or threats to survival. The endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi) population has only 1,400 seals remaining in the wild. A small but growing population of seals has recently reestablished itself in the human-populated main Hawaiian Islands. While this population growth raises concerns about human-seal interactions it also provides the opportunity to capitalize on human observations to enhance research and conservation activities. We measured the potential utility of non-traditional data sources, in this case Instagram, to supplement current population monitoring of monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands. We tracked all Instagram posts with the identifier #monkseal for a one-year period and assessed the photos for biological and geographical information, behavioral concerns, human disturbance and public perceptions. Social media posts were less likely to provide images suitable for individual seal identification (16.5%) than traditional sighting reports (79.9%). However, social media enhanced the ability to detect human-seal interactions or animal disturbances: 22.1%, of the 2,392 Instagram posts examined showed people within 3 meters of a seal, and 17.8% indicated a disturbance to the animal, meanwhile only 0.64% of traditional reports noted a disturbance to the animal. This project demonstrated that data obtained through social media posts have value to monk seal research and management strategies beyond traditional data collection, and further development of social media platforms as data resources is warranted. Many conservation programs may benefit from similar work using social media to supplement the research and conservation activities they are undertaking.
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