Googling for Ecological Answers: Using the Morphic Web Application

Post provided by Gabriella Leighton

Online Images: A Treasure Trove of Ecological Data

In the proclaimed ‘information age’, where answers are available at the click of a button or a swipe of a finger, we have become accustomed to the ability to get an almost instant grasp of any topic. Other fields are already making use of this wealth of easily accessible online data, but biologists and ecologists tend to let it slip by. However, this attitude is slowly beginning to change. Some ecological and evolutionary studies are emerging that have used the internet to gather data – through online citizen science projects (e.g. Evolution MegaLab) or databases (e.g. using Google Trends) – but few have used existing data, particularly publicly available data from image repositories.

We were curious to apply the concept of using existing images on the internet to a fascinating visual biological phenomenon: colour polymorphism (or the occurrence of multiple discrete colour phenotypes). To do this, we planned to exploit an existing penchant people have for uploading photographs of animals to the Internet.

Our search phrases included the common and scientific name of the species, as well as a location-specific term

Our search phrases included the common and scientific name of the species, as well as a location-specific term

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From Tree of Life to Web of Life: How Google Images Can Help Ecologists Study Evolution

Below is a press release about the Methods paper ‘Just Google it: assessing the use of Google Images to describe geographical variation in visible traits of organisms‘ taken from the British Ecological Society.

Black sparrowhawks are either completely dark or have a white breast. ©Oggmus

Black sparrowhawks are either completely dark or have a white breast. ©Oggmus

Animals caught on camera by amateur photographers and posted on the web could become an important new tool for studying evolution and other ecological questions, researchers from South Africa have found. Their study – the first of its kind – is published today in Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

Colour polymorphism – when a species has two or more colour types – has fascinated biologists since Darwin. The occurrence of these different colour types often varies geographically, providing a useful way of studying how different colour morphs – or phenotypes – evolve.

But the fieldwork needed to collect these data is time consuming and expensive, so Dr Arjun Amar and his student Gabriella Leighton from the University of Cape Town wondered if ecologists could use the thousands of animal images posted on the internet instead. Continue reading