Guest blog by Joe Millard, PhD student based at University College of London and the Zoological Society of London, in collaboration with the RSPB.

A large body of research has shown that global biodiversity is undergoing rapid change, driven by a multitude of anthropogenic activities. But alleviating this change remains an ongoing challenge. Understanding the extent to which people recognise the value of biodiversity, and what might drive changes in awareness and behaviour, is a significant obstacle in the pursuit of a more equitable future for life on Earth.

In a recent special edition published in Conservation Biology, myself and co-authors at UCL, the ZSL Institute of Zoology, and the RSPB introduced the Species Awareness Index (SAI), a new metric of global biodiversity awareness derived from the rate of change of over 2 billion page views on Wikipedia. We retrieved these page views from 10 Wikipedia language versions (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish), using the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) and software written in the programming language Python. Each of our page views represents a unique visit by a person, made to any of 41,197 animal species on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is not only an invaluable resource as an online encyclopaedia, it can also be used to understand how awareness of biodiversity is changing over time © logo by Nohat (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).

The SAI suggests that awareness of biodiversity is marginally increasing, but differs markedly among languages and taxonomic groups. Among taxonomic classes, overall awareness of reptiles is increasing fastest and amphibians slowest.

The Indian flying lizard (Draco dussumieri) is one of the species that have seen the fastest increase in global interest (c) Ajith Unnikrishnan

Among languages, overall species awareness for the Japanese Wikipedia is increasing fastest and the Chinese and German Wikipedias slowest. But although awareness of biodiversity is increasing on aggregate, increases don’t appear to be related to either the trade of species or their contribution to the pollination of plants, suggesting that the public is likely not becoming more aware of the value of biodiversity. In the future the SAI should help us track how awareness continues to change.

The Species Awareness Index (SAI) for 6 taxonomic classes (reptiles, ray-finned fishes, mammals, birds, insects, and amphibians), for the period July 2015-March 2020. Coloured lines represent the mean change for each taxonomic class and coloured bands a 95% confidence interval. Taxonomic class panels are ordered by the magnitude of overall increase in each taxonomic class.

Global change in public biodiversity awareness for 41,197 animal species listed by the IUCN for the period July 2015-March 2020. The black line represents the mean change and the grey band a 95% confidence interval.

Developing the Species Awareness Index (SAI)

In developing the SAI we took inspiration from another metric, the Living Planet Index (LPI), managed by colleagues at the ZSL Institute of Zoology. The LPI represents an aggregation of change in many vertebrate populations, which we use to understand whether populations of vertebrates are tending to increase or decrease. The SAI takes a similar approach, treating page views for 41,197 animal species on Wikipedia as digital pseudo-populations.

But the methodology for the SAI differs in one crucial aspect. Whereas the LPI is built only from the rate of change in each population, the rate of change for page views in the SAI are adjusted for change in the background popularity of Wikipedia. As a result we can be confident that changes in the SAI are driven by actual species awareness, and not by change in the use of Wikipedia.

In the future we hope to expand the SAI to include a greater number of Wikipedia languages and online encyclopaedias, such as Baidu Baike. We also hope to explore how the SAI might be combined with other online metrics such as the Conservation International Biodiversity Engagement Indicator, enabling a more holistic understanding of how public biodiversity awareness is changing.

Continue reading

 Would you like to be kept up to date with our latest science news? Email with the heading 'enewsletter' to be added to our quarterly enewsletter.

Want our blogs emailed to you automatically? Click the cog in the top right of this page and select 'turn blog notifications on' (if you have an RSPB blog account) or 'subscribe by email'.