Guest blog by Dr Rebecca Jefferson, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

It is a sunny afternoon. You’re walking along the beach, listening to the waves breaking and feeling the gentle crunch of sand underfoot.  After a busy day at work, this is just what you needed – you’re already feeling better.  Can being at the coast really improve your mood?  And, if so, why does it happen? 

In a study recently published in the journal, Marine Policy, we investigated whether marine biodiversity can have a positive effect on human wellbeing through asking people to rate a series of photos and videos of the marine environment.  The findings show that the more different species a person thought the marine scene contained, the greater the wellbeing benefit it could provide.  Similarly, there was greater potential wellbeing benefit from watching animals being active, such as birds flocking or diving for food, than when they were inactive.  The findings of this research are important for our understandings of the wellbeing benefits of nature, and the role biodiversity and animal behaviour play in that relationship.

Restoring our attention through nature

Much is written in psychology about restoration – the repair through spending time in nature of our attention from mundane tasks.  However, the work done so far on restoration theory hasn’t addressed two elements: firstly, the role of biodiversity – does more nature give a greater level of restoration? And secondly, most research has been done in urban parks – what about the sea?  Many of us seek out the coast and seashore - is the restoration potential there greater than elsewhere?

This project investigated the restoration potential of the coast and looked at the role of marine biodiversity in this restoration.  To study this, 1478 respondents were recruited through a market research company experienced in conducting online research.  This may seem a strange way to assess the impacts of visiting the coast, however, it is the best way to conduct a controlled experiment of this nature – it would be difficult to find an opportunity to give large numbers of people an identical nature experience on a beach!  Therefore, an online questionnaire provides the structure to investigate these questions. 

Measuring wellbeing benefits of marine biodiversity

The questionnaire included 12 images with high, medium or low biodiversity (as rated by two conservation scientists).  Respondents were shown each image and asked four questions which assessed how biodiverse they considered the scene was, how potentially restorative it was and how positive they felt about the scene.  In addition, we assessed whether the activity of animals people might see at the coast affected restoration. To do this, respondents were shown six 30 second videos, three of inactive animals (e.g. a gannet at a nesting colony) and three of the same species being much more active  (e.g. a gannet diving). For each video, respondent's restoration and positivity were measured. 

Videos of active animals such as this diving gannet, were considered to have greater restoration potential, and therefore improve human wellbeing, than videos of inactive animals. Photo by Ed Marshall (rspb-images.com)


Potential benefits of marine biodiversity – the more biodiversity the merrier

The project found that images which respondents perceived as being more biodiverse had greater restoration potential, meaning that where there was a greater variety of species, there was a greater likelihood that your wellbeing would be improved.  The results also showed that respondents over 35 years old rated images as having a greater potential wellbeing benefit.  When viewing the videos, respondents rated the active animal videos as giving a greater potential wellbeing benefit than the inactive animal videos.  It was also interesting to find a good match between how biodiverse the respondents considered the images to be with how biodiverse our experts rated the images.

Coastal scenes with high biodiversity, such as this image of flocking knot, were considered to have greater restoration potential, and therefore improve human wellbeing than low biodiversity images. Photo by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

These findings build on previous research to understand the connections between people and nature.  Similar results about perceived biodiversity and potential restoration for coasts as has been found in urban parks suggests that another reason for conserving our marine biodiversity is the benefits it could provide for human wellbeing.  Investigating the role of animal activity as part of a coastal experience is particularly novel and these results have opened new avenues in our exploration of how human wellbeing benefits from interactions with nature. 

To the beach

So, the take home message is to go to the coast and see what fascinating biodiversity and animal behaviour you can spot.  It’ll do you good.

Photo of people enjoying the beach at RSPB Minsmere reserve by Nick Cunard (rspb-images.com)

Acknowledgements

This was a collaborative project led by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, part of University of Exeter Medical School, which at the time the research was conducted was supported by the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund Convergence Programme for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.  Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) also supported the work.  Plymouth University and the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth were partners on the project.
Thanks to all the respondents for their time and contributions.

References

Mathew P. White, Abigail Weeks, Tom Hooper, Luke Bleakley, Deborah Cracknell, Rebecca Lovell, Rebecca L. Jefferson, Marine wildlife as an important component of coastal visits: The role of perceived biodiversity and species behaviour, Marine Policy, Volume 78, pages 80-89, April 2017

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