Endangered Animals Could Find Help Through Facebook Technology, UF Researchers Say

December 22nd, 2011
Posted by: Kelly,Stephanie K

Love it or hate it, a look at your Facebook news feed can read like an issue of National Geographic, at times. By showcasing the sometimes beastly behavior of young adults in their natural habitat, the popular website has often become synonymous with the sharing of “too much information.”

But while the social network may provide the human world with a wealth of knowledge about friends and acquaintances, it just might help scientists learn a bit more about endangered animals as well, thanks to a new University of Florida study.

You won’t be seeing a Friend Request from the Everglades snail kite just yet. But researchers at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have recently used statistical models, like those employed by Facebook for predicting human interactions, to gain new insight into animal movement in the wild.

In a recent study of both the cactus bug and the Everglades snail kite, UF scientists compared records of animals’ actual behavior to movements predicted by social network-style models. They then compared the accuracy of these models to existing animal movement models. Ultimately, the scientists found that the social network models were better able to predict animal connectivity than those that were presently in use.

The researchers say that the current models, which were shown in the study to overestimate animal movement, may be providing an inaccurate assessment of a species’ ability of survive. This means that some endangered animals may live in more isolated habitats than previously thought.

“These over predictions are problematic because we might falsely think that populations are viable when they may not be,” says Robert Fletcher, a UF wildlife ecology and conservation assistant professor.

Scientists believe the more accurate social media models might be used to help improve animal conservation efforts in the future. According to Fletcher, this enhanced understanding of animal connectivity could help conservationists better identify the specific habitats on which to focus their efforts. But that isn’t the only use for the study’s findings. The scientists say the social media models could also help manage the effects of unwanted pests, predicting where invasive species might move next.

Pretty wild stuff, even for Facebook.

Photo credits: Travis Isaacs and ac4photos