Guelph biologist taps social media for new species discoveries

Entomologist Morgan Jackson has turned social media into a scientific tool. He's part of a new generation of biologists and amateurs combining to make a wave of new discoveries.
Entomologist Morgan Jackson is using Twitter, Instagram to make new discoveries. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

A biologist at the University of Guelph has turned to an unlikely source in his quest for new discoveries: social media.

“I think it’s changing the entire landscape,” said PhD candidate Morgan Jackson. “We’re going to be able to take advantage of all these people with their smartphones and new publishing avenues.”

Jackson said an increasing number of entomologists are scouring the depths of social media and discovering new insects and previously undocumented activities.

In 2013, California-based taxonomist Shaun Winterton collaborated with a Malaysian photographer to officially document a previously undescribed species of lacewing. Winterton first spotted the insect on the photographers Flickr page, Yahoo’s photo sharing website.

In August, history was made by another amateur naturalist in Southeast Asia. The user uploaded a video of ants forming a daisy chain to drag a millipede, an activity no scientist had ever seen.

Tweet as the official record

Jackson says similar milestones are being made in Canada.

Last year, he found an Instagram post of a tree cricket in Elgin County. He went through the University of Guelph’s records and confirmed the post as the first record of the insect in that area.

“A few months later, a friend of mine in Manitoba was going through student collections and found a fairly rare insect, and he tweeted it” Jackson added.  “And until he publishes an official scientific journal, the official record is now that tweet.”

In the past, insect-spotters in Ontario could only share their findings in journals, like the one published by the Entomological Society of Ontario, said Jackson.

“Now that we’ve got our own avenues for publishing, the way that people are sharing the data and their discoveries is changing,” he said.

“Biologists and scientists are going to have to keep an eye on these things,” Jackson added. “If we want to encourage people to find new things and explore the world, we have to be able to take advantage of that and share credit for these discoveries.”

The documentation to make these discoveries is likely already floating around somewhere on the internet.  Spotting it, though, can be as hard as finding a stick bug in a haystack.

A search for “insect” on Instagram or Flickr turns up millions of results. Jackson hopes keen amateurs will start adding family and species names to help narrow his search.

“That’s definitely a big roadblock right now,” he said.

Jackson hopes people will start tagging their social media posts so that it will be easier for scientists to search and find it.