Plants & People

The bright side of Facebook: users catalogue rare plant species in Italy

A new study in the Journal of Applied Ecology highlights how photos in a Facebook group can complement plant scientists’ sightings.

Hundreds of years ago, scientific expeditions to unknown territories were the way to find new species and catalogue life on Earth. Today, everyone can help with recording, photographing and uploading their own sightings with a few clicks. For example, iNaturalist is one of the best-known citizen science initiatives that provides scientists worldwide with much-needed species occurrence data. Whilst iNaturalist is a database that scientists can easily access, extracting sightings from social media platforms is not straightforward.  

Dr Corrado Marcenò from Masaryk University and colleagues from the Czech Republic and Italy compared the plant sightings from a Facebook group (Flora Spontanea Siciliana) with 23,000 members to the scientist-collected European Vegetation Archive. (EVA) Many red-listed and alien (outside their normal distribution) plants were reported in the Facebook group to complement the EVA dataset. This study highlights the potential of utilising social media platforms for monitoring plant species occurrences.

A plant next to a computer with Facebook on it.
Scientists can find important plant species occurrence information from Facebook . Source: Canva

The Flora Spontanea Siciliana Facebook group was established in 2010. There were 17,213 records of 1,700 plant species in this group, whilst the scientist-collected EVA consisted of over 126,500 observations of 1,722 species.

After collating all the observations, Marcenò and colleagues investigated the plant traits (e.g., flower colour, utility, growth form) and phylogenetic differences between the two datasets.

Two rare plant species, Anemone palmata and Ipomoea imperati, were confirmed or reported at new sites within a Facebook  group. Source: Javier martin/WikimediaCommons and Zeynel Cebeci/WikimediaCommons

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Facebook recorded more orchids and showy-flowered alien species than the EVA. The Facebook and EVA datasets shared 73% of species, but the locations and proportion of plant genera differed, highlighting how the two datasets complement each other.

“Facebook reaches a much wider audience than structured citizen science platforms (e.g. iNaturalist) that drive the attention of people who already have a strong motivation in observing and collecting biodiversity data,” Marcenò and colleagues wrote.

“Our results pointed out that supervised groups within social networks can be used as citizen science tools and efficiently collect large amounts of biodiversity data validated by local experts.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Facebook users recorded a higher proportion of red-listed and alien species than vegetation scientists. The vegetation plots are usually sampled in the spring, so scientists could miss some plants that are not in bloom at that time. Facebook sightings are continuous and not limited to a specific time frame.

“Given the vast amount of potentially useful biodiversity data stored in Facebook, there should be greater interest and availability from the developers of this social network to share information with researchers,” the researchers highlight as the data extraction is time-consuming and geotagging is unavailable.

On Facebook, more tall, perennial and bulbous herbs were recorded. In comparison, more grasses and small annual plants were recorded in the European vegetation plots, and in both datasets, plants with purplish flowers were overrepresented. Plants with green and dark/brownish floral colours were significantly less recorded in the Facebook dataset. As both Facebook users and scientists seem to be biased towards different groups of plants, the sightings can greatly complement each other.

This study highlights the “bright side” of Facebook and how a single group can record valuable information about local fauna. Whilst sailing and trekking to record plants around the world sounds exhilarating, thanks to the wonders of technology, everyone can contribute to cataloguing life on Earth.

2 comments

  1. Interesting, but a typo led me down a deep rabbit hole before I found the Facebook group you referred to. The article cites the “Flora Spontanea Siliana” – and there is such a place as Siliana – whereas the Facebook group is “Flora Spontanea Siciliana” which refers to Sicily. I did learn a lot about geography and history in the process, but I really wanted to focus on the botany!

    1. Apologies for not spotting the typo. I’ll correct that. I had been based in Siliana, Tunisia for a project so it probably didn’t fire a neuron as looking wrong when I read it.

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