Eel got your nose?
About a year ago, scientists were baffled – juvenile Hawaiian monk seals kept getting eels stuck in their noses. The story quickly flooded social media, and hundreds upon hundreds of users shared a good laugh over a dorky looking, young monk seal sporting an unusual (and probably uncomfortable) eelish-accessory. Social platforms, like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, helped connect marine mammal lovers over their common affection for charming monk seals.
Social media can hold much more potential than the occasional source of humor. With over 3 billion social media users in the world, platforms are increasingly important sources of social interactions, including those between the public and marine science and conservation experts. The same social platforms which hosted stories of juvenile Hawaiian monk seals’ nasal-plight can also help improve their conservation and management.
Sullivan, Robinson, and Littnan (2019) use data from Instagram, a photo based social media platform, to determine social media’s utility in gathering individual animal identification, location of sighting, and frequency and degree of human disturbance. Hawaiian monk seals, the authors contend, are the perfect case study because of their sparse distribution and low populations. Scientists can use the animals’ appeal to the general public to source data on otherwise tough study subjects. There are roughly 1,400 monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and about 231 in the main, heavily human populated Hawaiian Islands. Typical surveys and observations can be inefficient, costly, and lengthy for scientists, but public contribution (a form of citizen science) can improve data on these endangered monk seals.
Sullivan et al. (2019) collected 2,392 posts from Instagram with the hashtag “monkseal” depicting wild, live Hawaiian monk seals between October 1, 2014 and September 30, 2015. The team gathered data on post date and location, and looked for at least three features to identify each seal. To determine whether photos demonstrated human-wildlife interaction or monk seal disturbance, the scientists used image depth of field and photographed monk seal behavior. If a person was in the photo, Sullivan et al. (2019) estimated their distance from the pictured seal as well. The team codified seal disturbance as looking at the camera or exhibiting an open mouth display (minor) and moving away from the camera or individual in the frame (major). Finally, Sullivan et al. (2019) analyzed the sentiment behind the post and its comments as “positive,” “neutral,” and “negative.”
When compared to NOAA’s traditional data set, the scientists identified less seals and beach locations through Instagram posts. Sullivan et al. (2019) were able to identify individual seals and seal location in 16.5% and 42.2% respectively of collected posts. Traditional reports in NOAA data sets, on the other hand, identified significantly more seals in 79.99% of total reports (7,655) and seal locations in 97.78% of reports.
The authors then found that Instagram posts better represented human-wildlife interaction than traditional, NOAA reports. Conservationists recommend staying 50 meters away from monk seals, and Sullivan et al. (2019) found that many posts depicted either photographers or photographed people closer to seals than the recommended distance. 40.05% of posts displayed either close proximity between seal and photographer/photographed individual or seal disturbance. Notably, the team found seal disturbance 20 times more frequently in Instagram posts when compared to traditional, NOAA reports. Sullivan et al. (2019) posit that through such data, wildlife managers and scientists can work to target sites of human-wildlife interaction and adapt policy appropriately.
There are a variety of limitations in using social media as a data source, and Sullivan et al. (2019) describe a few. When an account is deleted, so too are all its corresponding posts. Additionally, users can live-edit their posts, creating constantly changing data. One possible limitation the authors do not contend with is how social platforms incentivize a photo-focused, “selfie-culture.”
Scientists, conservationists, and wildlife managers have (in varied ways) cautioned against selfie-culture, which often puts wildlife and humans in very close proximity to each other. In fact, people have risked their own safety just to grab a photo of animals. The increase in social media’s prevalence could be one reason that the pressure to take photos pushes someone to interact with wildlife in potentially unsafe ways. Instagram, by virtue, is all about photos. Therefore, it makes sense that a platform that incentivizes photos can similarly incentivize heightened human-wildlife interaction to attain such photos, as seen in Sullivan et al.’s (2019) findings. Traditional reports by NOAA, on the other hand, may incentivize data collection and safe wildlife practices over the photo itself.
This limitation does not discredit social media as a powerful and useful tool in conservation or wildlife management. NOAA, for example, was actually able to track a particular missing monk seal which was bitten by a shark, consequently disappearing for months, to a specific island through social media. Additionally, Sullivan et al. (2019) note that Instagram posts overwhelmingly were positive in nature: 75.1% of posts showed positive sentiment compared to 20.6% neutral posts and only .2% negative posts (4.1% had no caption). Human-wildlife interaction, therefore, cannot be concretely prescribed to malintent by photo posters. Given the positive sentiment displayed through social media posts, conservationists and scientists alike have a valuable vehicle to influence perceptions and knowledge about endangered species. These platforms offer a special, unique tool to foster dyadic communication; Scientists should use social media to converse about safe wildlife interaction with the public and increase engagement in citizen science reporting initiatives. Social posters can congruently create content reflecting their positive sentiments and growing conservation knowledge. Sullivan et al. (2019) explain that social media has potential as a site of growth and learning, where users learn what is safe and appropriate from each other – the same can happen between scientists and users as well.
Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter – they deftly spread charming science stories about the mystery of monk seals’ eel-plugged noses. But these very same platforms could provide scientists with valuable data, open a critical forum of discussion, and foster learning in both the public sphere and the scientific world when it comes to conservation of endangered species like monk seals.
Rishya is a multimedia science communicator with an MS in Media Advocacy from Northeastern University, specializing in Environmental Science Communications and Policy. She spent a year in informal education and policy advocacy at the New England Aquarium as an Educator and at Save the Harbor/Save the Bay as their Communications and Public Relations Coordinator. She also interned for PBS science series, NOVA and was awarded a 2019 Rapport Public Policy Fellowship, which she served at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. Rishya’s areas of focus are environmental science, marine science, climate change…and video games!