Thursday, May 5, 2016

The most popular reptiles

There is a debate in conservation as to whether the fact that we as humans like a particular species justifies conserving it, regardless of its importance from an ecological point of view. But although this idea of some species being "culturally valuable" has been around for some time, it has been difficult to measure and define. Whether or not we want to take these cultural variables into account when shaping conservation policy, we need data to support those decisions.

This is the rationale behind a new study by scientists from Oxford University and Tel Aviv University. The researchers looked at 55.5 million page views in the year 2014 for all of the 10,002 species of reptile accessed in Wikipedia. The ranked the world's most 'popular' reptiles, revealing the species that capture the public's imagination and providing valuable quantitative data towards the debate surrounding conservation priorities.

The network of online and cross-referenced information repositories known as Linked Data has allowed us to gather information about most known reptile species. We see potential in using data-driven approaches to study the cultural impact of global species through their online footprint. Wikipedia page-view counts are just one of many metrics that can be explored.

They found that venomous or endangered species, as well as those with higher body mass or posing a threat to humans, tended to be more interesting overall. There was also a bias towards species found in Wikipedia users' own regions -- for example, the Japanese pit viper was top of the Japanese-language rankings, while the green iguana was the most-accessed species among Spanish speakers. Taking all languages into account, the Komodo dragon was the most popular species overall, with 2,014,932 page views in 2014 (3.6% of total page views), followed by the common European adder and the saltwater crocodile.

Top 10 reptiles accessed on the English-language version of Wikipedia in 2014:

1. Komodo dragon

2. Black mamba

3. Saltwater crocodile

4. King cobra

5. Gila monster

6. Cottonmouth (viper)

7. American alligator

8. Leatherback sea turtle

9. Nile crocodile

10. Boa constrictor

Perhaps surprisingly, the study found that 'culturally interesting' reptile species in Wikipedia were widely distributed across the reptilian tree of life. If we only saved the top 5% of the most popular species in Wikipedia, we would cover 67% of the 88 reptile families.

Although the study was aimed solely at gathering data, the researchers speculate at the reasons behind the huge variations in public interest between species:

With notable exceptions such as the sea turtle or Galapagos giant tortoise, species that are venomous or otherwise dangerous to humans seem to capture people's imaginations more than others. The Komodo dragon is found in a geographical area probably the size of a small English county, yet it consistently attracts the most attention -- possibly because the idea of the dragon is so universal in myth and folklore. 

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