Current projections show that we are on the threshold of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event with 30-50% of all species predicted to be at risk of disappearing in the next century. Up against the threat of extinction, conservationists need to know where to focus their efforts and how to decide which species to protect. That’s where John Mittermeier comes in. John is a PhD student in biodiversity conservation at the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He researches the social aspect of conservation and how the “cultural value” of a species can be used to plan preservation efforts.
Throughout his academic career, John has always studied the human-wildlife interface. This is the part of conservation that interests him the most, the intersection between social, human variables and biological ones. He looked at the evolution of the conservation movement in the United States during his Bachelor’s degree at Yale and then focused on evolutionary biology for his Master’s at Louisiana State University. John grew up in a very conservation-minded family so his background combined with his own interest in the subject made a career (and a PhD) in conservation almost inevitable. John explains that “Effective conservation requires knowledge of both biology, like where a species lives, what it eats, its population size, etc., and social factors, such as how people view a species, what do they use it for, and do they like it.” His research focuses on the “social factors” part. He’s using a big data approach to look at patterns of human interest in different species to get insights for conservation priorities.
The cultural value of a species is often overlooked in conservation programs, partly because these types of attributes are difficult to measure. For his PhD, John is designing metrics for quantifying and comparing human interest in different species which can be used by conservation planners and researchers. The role of human interest in conservation is debated among ecologists. Does the fact that we humans like a particular species justify conserving it even if it is unimportant from an ecological point of view?
Before the value of human interest can be assessed, researchers must figure out reliable methods to quantify it and investigate what types of patterns this information could reveal. As an example, John published a paper last year with collaborators at Tel Aviv University where they used Wikipedia to quantify cultural interest in every single species of reptile. They analysed every pageview in the year 2014 (all 55.5 million of them) of all the reptiles across 146 Wikipedia language editions. They then compared how pageviews across languages correlated with the 10,002 individual reptile species’ geography, phylogeny, and threat status. Their analysis showed that the most popular reptiles are large, venomous, endangered, and pose a threat to humans, meaning species like the Komodo Dragon, Black Mamba, and Saltwater Crocodile came out on top. While these top three most popular species are shared across all languages, John and his coworkers found that Wikipedia users are usually interested in reptiles in their own regions.
While Wikipedia the sum total of pageviews are one possible metric that could be used to determine cultural value, John is still working towards refining this metric and considering others that really “work” for people in different areas of conservation. He is excited by the potential to apply insights he has gained from academia to conservation projects and problems. Once he finishes his PhD, John will likely move into a more applied position like at a conservation NGO where he can be directly involved in implementing policy. The potential to improve methods for conserving species inspires him to continue working on useful and applicable metrics to determine an animal’s cultural value. “I’m not there yet, but if I am able to create a useful tool in this way I’ll be very pleased with my PhD results!”
Top Ten Most Popular Reptiles by total Wikipedia views (All Languages)
- Komodo Dragon
- Common European Adder
- Saltwater Crocodile
- Black Mamba
- King Cobra
- Grass Snake
- Green Anaconda
- Boa Constrictor
- Slow Worm
- Nile Crocodile