- African Mountains
For any researcher, fieldwork is resource-intensive and, depending on the subject, may involve safety concerns. For ecologists, this often depends on the species under scrutiny. Many species are difficult, time-consuming and dangerous to observe, and well-trained fieldworkers expensive to employ. “Ecology would be much easier if we had better ways of observing species, and images taken by amateur and professional photographers, if geo-referenced, could be a rich source of ecological information,” says Thami Nkwanyane, communications officer for the University of Cape Town (UCT).
University of Cape Town-based ecologist Gabriella Leighton, whose paper ‘Just Google it: assessing the use of Google Images to describe geographical variation in visible traits of organisms’ has received the most recent British Ecological Society (BES) Robert May Prize for showing how Google can help make ecology cheaper, faster and safer. Leighton spotted a gap: while using digital material to supplement fieldwork was not new, she wondered how feasible it was to replace fieldwork altogether in certain instances? And secondly, she considered whether it possible to use existing material in the public domain, rather than reaching out to citizens to collect fresh data? Leighton had found that people all over the world also upload photographs of wildlife to media sharing websites, stock photograph websites, blogs and everything in between. In many cases, photographers are kind enough to accompany these wildlife images with other information, such as location and date – making them really useful to ecologists.
‘Just Google it: assessing the use of Google Images to describe geographical variation in visible traits of organisms’ by Gabriella R. M. Leighton, Pierre S. Hugo, Alexandre Roulin, Arjun Amar (Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 7:9, pp 1060-1070).