March 5 (UPI) -- By studying Wikipedia search patterns, scientists can gain insights into the distribution and movement of animal species.
Researcher John Mittermeier, an ornithologist and PhD student at the University of Oxford's School of Geography and the Environment, first got the idea for mining Wikipedia pageview data while studying the online popularity of different animal species.
Mittermeier decided to plot Wikipedia pageviews as a time series.
"I chose a bird species to do this and as luck would have it I happened to chose a migratory bird, the indigo bunting," Mittermeier told UPI. "English language pageviews for the bunting show a conspicuous annual peak that I immediately recognized as coinciding with the spring migration of these birds in North America."
When Mittermeier and his research partners looked at the pageview data for other species, they found similar seasonal patterns. In total, the researchers surveyed the timing of 2.33 billion pageviews for 31,715 different species across the website. Scientists analyzed data from 245 different Wikipedia language editions.
As was the case for the indigo bunting, the Wikipedia data showed visits to the pages of dozens of migrational species spiked at the same places and at the same times the animals were moving into new territory.
Researchers found the seasonal patterns among Wikipedia pageview data were more pronounced for certain groups and types of plants and animals.
"Flowering plants tend to have higher internet seasonality than non-flowering plants, for example, and several groups of marine organisms tend to be lower in their seasonality than terrestrial ones," Mittermeier said. "In both these cases, how visible the seasonal variation in the species is to a non-specialist may be a critical factor. In these cases, seasonal changes that happen under water or aren't as visibly showy seem to get less attention."
Additionally, the new analysis -- published Wednesday in the journal PLOS Biology -- showed seasonal patterns were more pronounced among the pageview data collected from Wikipedia editions in languages mostly spoken at higher latitudes than editions in languages more prevalent at lower latitudes. The farther one moves from the equator, the more pronounced seasonal patterns become.
Researchers also found exceptions to internet seasonality trends identified in their newly published paper.
"Investigating these [exceptions] in more detail to see why differences occur even amongst similar species -- two kinds of migratory birds for example -- would be a really interesting direction for further research," Mittermeier said.
Mining internet search data for insights could prove useful to conservationists, as well as ecologists and biologists.
"Conservationists often find themselves needing to raise awareness for a particular species in order to help protect them; knowing when there is a natural peak in interest -- and in what language that peak occurs -- can make these efforts more impactful," Mittermeier said. "More broadly, looking at which species have a seasonal pattern of interest and when that peak in interest occurs tells us something significant about how people are interacting with and valuing that species."