Posted by: oikosasa | October 29, 2012

How Google affects biodiversity

Is there really a connection between biodiversity and conservation and Internet? Oh, yes, read Michal Zmihorski and his colleagues new Early View paper in Oikos, Ecological correlates of the popularity of birds and butterflies in Internet information resources”.

Below, Michal tells us what made him and his co-workers to do this analyses:

“The idea concerning wildlife in the Internet resulted from a simple observation. Namely, we noted that different species are popular in the Internet whereas others are relatively rare. For each query Google provides the number of web pages containing the searched word(s) (here the name of a bird or butterfly). Consequently, we searched for possible mechanisms explaining the differences. More specifically, we expected that the patterns of popularity and rarity in the web were not random and should be somehow linked to the phenotype of particular species. Therefore we selected some basic characteristics of species, such as body size or migratory behaviour, and checked their importance in explaining the popularity on the internet. We excluded species whose names had more than one meaning. Initially we worked on Polish names of Polish birds but, following editors’ advice, we extended this to English names of British butterflies.


Several characteristics related to ecology and morphology of species were associated with their popularity in society. This in turn may have some obvious consequences for selection of species for conservation actions (e.g. as flagship species). We suggest that conservationists may use some phenotypic features of species in a more systematic manner to select for flagship species. However, to be honest, this is not of primary interest to us. The most exciting aspects of the association between phenotype and popularity is related to possible feedback, i.e. profits that popularity brings to a given species. First of all, we showed that there is some filtering of “colonization” of the internet by birds and butterflies (some features make species more effective in this “colonization” process). Secondly, the assumption that popularity in society is profitable for species seems to be true and may be related to the fact that organisms which are commonly known and well recognized by peoples may benefit from e.g. artificial feeding, nest-boxes, nest protection from predation and devastation, conservation actions, effective fund raising and so on (it is not easy to find references confirming this assumption, fortunately, we do not have to provide any in text for an Oikos blog!). If this is so the following mechanism can be proposed: the phenotypic features that makes a species popular in the Internet may also affect its fitness (because species that are popular in society may benefit from their popularity). Of course, the proposed mechanism has several weak points and needs to be confirmed, but in our opinion may be a catalyst for further studies. What is important is that if the mechanism works this means that natural selection may partially go through the virtual world of the internet, and such an idea is something new.

            All your comments and suggestions (including proposals for cooperation) concerning the topic of our study are highly welcomed. You have full text access to this content


  1. Hugh Possingham was the first person I heard suggest that the value placed on species by humans could be measured by Google websites. He mentioned it in an opinion piece that we co-authored ( It is nice to see this idea in the refereed literature, recognising that Google hits might not represent true value (in terms of ecosystem services and other values derived by humans).

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