Most of us can’t go a day without looking at our phones, with many of us shamefully spending hours on end scrolling Instagram, Tweeting, sharing memes with friends on Facebook or perfecting that trendy dance routine for TikTok.  

It has become so ubiquitous that that researchers have coined the term ‘nomophobia’ (short for no-mobile phobia) to diagnose the feelings people have of anxiety and unpleasantness when separated from their phones. 

While we could see this as a cultural crisis, with some people yearning for the days of letter writing and snail mail, environmental scientists couldn’t be happier. 

Scientists have realised that the same technology that brought us the selfie can be used to help save some of the thousand of species teetering on the brink of extinction. 

People photographing images of birds, plants, flowers and other wildlife—whilst curating their glossy feeds and making their friends at home jealous— are actually helping environmental researchers to monitor and conserve biodiversity.

The hashtag #biodiversity alone has over one million posts on Instagram. Source: Instagram.

Some researchers have called these citizen scientists a new “huge army of field biologists around the world” helping to make a difference in the fight against the global diversity crisis. 

There is overwhelming evidence that has found nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. Some estimates are even saying the extinction rate is as at least one living thing per every one million species per year with the death rate expected to accelerate. 

The rise of digital technology has fundamentally changed the way we experience the world, and scientists are quickly adapting. Apps like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Tiktok have altered the way in which we experience natural environments, and environmental researchers are seizing on this potential. 

With field research, data collection, inventorying and monitoring being very time consuming and expensive, social media has revolutionised scientist’s specimen collection effort.

A new app iBirding could help save endangered species in China and around the world. Image: Gary Bendig. Source: Unsplash.

Just this week, a group of Chinese researchers launched an app to crowd source data for bird conservation. The app named iBirding was launched by the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research (IGSNRR) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and will allow amateur birdwatchers and professional researches alike to contribute to science by capturing their bird sightings.

The creators hope the crowdsourced data will help identify trends and early warning signs when species may be threatened not just in China but globally. 

This project shows how the potential for us to understand present and emerging human-related threats has grown exponentially, particularly helping wildlife in places that were previously difficult to assess or costly to get to.

While many of us follow wildlife accounts for a daily dose of cuteness, experts say this trend is fundamentally helping to strengthen public awareness of wildlife conservation, as people start to realise the importance of natural beauty and conservation science.

National Geographic’s Instagram feed has reached cult following status. Source: Instagram

One example of this is the cult status reached by National Greographic, which became the first brand to top 100 million followers on Instagram. Its follower count today stands at a whopping 138 million —numbers to only the likes of Kim Kardashian and Lionel Messi can relate!

Air New Zealand is example of a company joining in the fight to help biodiversity with their safety video shared widely on social media. Source: Youtube.

The power of social media to spread environmental messages and help conservation was self-evident this week when a photo of a certain grizzly bear went viral on social media, also making headlines across the world. 

Bear 399 is so famous she has her own Twitter profile. Source: Twitter.

Bear 399, who is being touted as the most famous bruin in the world, was spotted emerging from a long winter —with cubs!

Scientists have feared for decades that grizzlies in the Yellowstone region, USA could disappear all together. This bear has now become a poster child for conservation, as thanks for habitat protection, crackdowns on poaching and a ban on hunting, their numbers have recovered. 

Although current global coronavirus restrictions are putting a dampen on citizen scientists helping to preserve our natural world, environmental researchers remain optimistic about the potential for a globally sourced data set to help mitigate and prevent worsening of the biodiversity crisis. 


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