Are Natural History Films Really Raising Environmental Awareness?

The following article first appeared on the Research Blog for Dr. Neil Hammerschlag’s Shark Research and Conservation (SRC) Lab website at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. To learn more about SRC, visit here: http://sharkresearch.rsmas.miami.edu/, or to learn more about the University’s marine science school, please click here: http://rsmas.miami.edu/.

By: Delaney Reynolds, SRC intern.

Films have influenced the way people perceive certain topics for decades. We all know and love the Jaws theme song, but soon after the movie’s release, mass hysteria broke out and a negative stigma has been associated with sharks ever since. Here at Shark Research and Conservation we, of course, know these apex predators are nothing to fear, but rather a respectable species that can provide us with a lot of information regarding environmental vitality. Thankfully, many others recognize this as well and social media platforms have played a very large role in dissipating the adverse reputation sharks have obtained. With social media ruling the world we live in today, are natural films and documentaries doing as well of a job at educating about conservation issues? Researchers at the University College Cork and University College Dublin set to find out.

In 2016 the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) aired its wildly popular show Planet Earth 2 narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The show brought in over 12 million viewers (BBC News). By looking at the engagement on Twitter and Wikipedia between November 6th to December 11th, 2016 (when the show aired), a qualitative analysis was performed based on the show’s script, the animal species it mentioned, the screen time they each were given, and conservation themes. In total, 113 animal species were mentioned and classified as mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, fish, and invertebrate (Fernandez-Bellon, Kane, 2019). It was also noted that each species was described in part based on their predator-prey interaction.

Taxonomic Group and IUCN Status

Figure 1: The proportion of taxonomic groups based on screen time and IUCN conservation status. The number of species is represented by circle size, colors represent the IUCN conservation categories, bars represent taxonomic groups and proportions, and changes in circle size represents differences in screen time (Source: Fernández‐Bellon et al. 2019).

Based on the qualitative analysis, it was found that mammals were overrepresented in the show, thus all other categories were underrepresented, and the screen time that was allocated to specific species based upon their IUCN categories did not discuss or reflect conservation priorities (Figure 1). As such, audience engagement was highest in response to the mammals on the show and animals with an IUCN “least concern” conservation status also dominated airtime.

Twitter and Wikipedia Engagement

Figure 2: Audience engagement for ten species that were featured in Planet Earth 2 from (a) Twitter and (b) Wikipedia. Twitter engagement was based on the number of times each species was mentioned under #PlanetEarth2 and Wikipedia engagement was based on the number of visits to each species’ specific page. Colors represent the IUCN conservation status, red shading in (b) represents the 6 weeks that Planet Earth 2 was aired, and the darker red band illustrates the specific episode each animal was highlighted in (Source: Fernández‐Bellon et al. 2019).

In total, 30,000 tweets were posted under #PlanetEarth2 during the broadcast of the show and it was evident that species screen time per episode had a significant impact on audience engagement. Only 6% of the entire script for the show was dedicated to conservation education, leading to 1% of tweets mentioned containing conservation themes (Figure 2a). Based on the Wikipedia analysis, 41% of the animal species highlighted in the show recorded a yearly peak in page visits during the episodes of their respective animal species and, again, screen time of animal species had a significant effect on engagement (Fernandez-Bellon, Kane, 2019). The more screen time an animal received, the more it was tweeted about or searched for.

Given the extreme success of nature films and documentaries, just like Planet Earth 2, they can be fantastic platforms to educate a large amount of people about different conservation and environmental issues. Unfortunately, Planet Earth 2 did not feature conservation themes nearly enough, but this study shows just how effective such a platform can be in informing an extensive audience and with environmental issues emerging as a key issue for our society, it will be crucial to include them. So, no, not all nature films are currently doing their job in raising environmental awareness

Works Cited:

Fernández‐Bellon, D, Kane, A. Natural history films raise species awareness—A big data approach. Conservation Letters. 2019;e12678. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12678

“Planet Earth II More Popular than X Factor with Young Viewers.” BBC News, BBC, 1 Dec. 2016, www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-38170406.

The Ancient Reefs of Texas & New Mexico

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I’m just back from another amazing scientific expedition with my colleagues and friends at the University of Miami. We spent a week in the field studying ancient reefs from the Paleozoic era (542 – 251 million years ago) in West Texas and New Mexico. It was an amazing learning experience filled with fantastic adventures to the El Capitan formation, McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Lincoln National Forest, White Sands National Park, Tularosa and Alamogordo.

My professor and longtime friend, climate and geologic scientist extraordinaire, Dr. Hal Wanless once told me that if I planned on being a scientist, it’s a good idea to start with earth science. Dr. Wanless is a wonderful teacher and an even better friend, it’s not too long ago that he was named one of Politico’s 50 Most Influential People (along with another friend of mine, Dr. Phil Stoddard). I remember reading a Rolling Stone magazine article about climate change five or six years ago that featured Dr. Wanless, calling him “Dr. Doom” over his grave predictions of what South Florida might become in a world of climate change and rising sea levels. Not only has he had a massive impact on my interest in our climate change crisis, but I can’t deny that he has also had an influence in my electing to select Geology as my second major. I sure am glad that he did.

My most recent expedition was led by the equally wonderful Dr. Jim Klaus, Dr. Don McNeill, and Dr. Alex Humphreys. As you will see from the pictures and video that I’m sharing, we had an amazing time. Whether admiring the El Capitan formation from a distance; hiking five miles through Guadalupe Mountains National Park while studying all sorts of carbonate formations; exploring the depths, stalagmites, stalactites, and columns of Carlsbad Caverns National Park; admiring the radiant sunset at White Sands National Park, extremely soft sand completely made of gypsum; or avoiding rattle snakes on voyages to summit mud mounds, the trip was an absolute blast.

Please enjoy the pictures (and video) below for just a small glimpse into our extremely fun and highly educational week.

El Capitan Formation, Texas

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

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White Sands National Park, New Mexico

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Tularosa, New Mexico

Good News… Bad News

I am sure you’ve had someone say “I have good news and bad news for you, which would you like first?” In my case I tend to lean toward wanting to get the bad news out of the way.

Bad News.

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The Bahamas has announced that it will soon start drilling for oil off its coast by approving the Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) plans to build its first deep water well. BPC predicts that it hopes to harvest at least  2 billion barrels of oil. The first well, named Perseverance # 1, will be located about 100 miles from Andros Island and 150 miles from South Florida. It’s been reported that BPC has five licenses for offshore drilling over about 4 million acres, one of which is about 50 miles from Miami. How anyone thinks this is a good idea (other than the oil company and those that have paid or been paid off), I can’t imagine but it’s really, really bad news.

Last year Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas and caused over $3 billion in damage while killing 67 people. Scientists predict that as our climate continues to warm we should expect an increase in the number and intensity of such storms so it seems to me that building oil drilling rigs right in the middle of the most prolific hurricane zone on earth is a really bad idea. It’s a bad idea given the environmental catastrophe an oil spill can cause (anyone remember the Deepwater Horizon spill from 2016?).

And it seems to me that it’s a really bad idea for an island nation that is at risk of extinction in a world of rising seas. How in the world could the Bahamian government, no matter how much money they might reap, add to the very problem that threatens them? If that’s not stupid, I don’t know what is. Tragically stupid.

Good News.

Bravo to Virginia lawmakers for passing what is being called a “historic step towards addressing climate change”.  Virginia’s state senate, led by a newly elected Democratic majority, passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a law that plans to get that state to 100% clean electricity and zero carbon emissions by 2045.

The new law intends to dramatically expand on and offshore wind generation, solar power use, and battery storage technology while also creating thousands of jobs. The law also intends to demand that regulated utilities, including the state’s largest provider Dominion Energy, meet aggressive efficiency requirements, set annual goals for the use of renewable power, and remove historic roadblocks to rooftop and shared solar energy. You can read more about the new law here and here.

So how about it Governor DeSantis? What do you say the State of Florida stops protecting FP&L and other regulated power companies from controlling solar and we create a law like Virginia’s along with the added enhancement that we begin eliminating (outlawing) fossil fuel use? The Sunshine State sure could use leadership like what’s happening in Virginia and having such steps take place here in Florida would be some very good news indeed.

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