To Selfie or Not to Selfie- How Can Scientists Foster Public Trust on Instagram?

A few months ago I was contacted by Dr. Paige Jarreau, a science communication specialist at Louisiana State University, to discuss how scientists use Instagram to positively engage with the public. My Instagram is a source for daily wildlife facts and information on how to become a wildlife biologist. I post cool facts about the critters in your back yard and around the world as well as highlight the importance of science and conservation research. Why do I do this? Well, for starters, it's fun! Posting on Instragram is a great way to combine my passions with down time, and I really enjoy talking to so many outdoor and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) enthusiasts! However, social media is also a great way to showcase diversity and trustiworthiness in science, and here is how we're going to test it:

Scientists are often perceived as smart, but stiff. Warmth, friendliness, and receptiveness are not always associated with people in STEM. Recent research testing these concepts found that Americans perceive scientists as competent, but not necessarily warm- and warmth is a key component of trust. Experts in all fields must work to disseminate their research, but also earn (and maintain) the trust of those listening. Sometimes, we fail at one, or both.  Simply put, we've got a public image problem. Fortunately, I, along with many others, are interested in whether we can change the way the public views and trusts scientists.

I was super pumped when Paige reached out to me because she wants to test whether using Instagram can generate trust between scientists and non-scientists. Does showing that we are regular people make the public more likely to perceive us as warm, friendly, and therefore trustworthy? Is information online more believable when accompanied by a friendly face? Do selfies make scientific content more dynamic and trustworthy?

Do #ScientistsWhoSelfie foster a better public image?

These are just a few questions being asked by my team on a project where we are empirically testing whether personalization in online presence fosters a better public image. Using Instagram, our team is going to measure how public perception changes when presented with curated and informative posts on social media. Specifically, do selfies help scientists? Measuring this empirically means we can provide scientists with ways to be more effective disseminators of science and research. While many see science communication as a frivolous pastime, we want to generate information to show that online STEM presence is worth scientists' time. We want to learn how to best earn public trust in order to make science more accessible and useful for all. 

If you're visiting my website, there's a good chance you first found me on Instagram or Twitter. If you enjoy my content, or if you're here because you follow other awesome scientists on social media, this post is for you! To make this project successful, we need your help. We are jumpstarting this research with a crowdfunding campaign. With professional endorsements, a bare-bones budget, and a detailed timeline, our project includes dozens of scientists and STEM enthusiasts who are already generating content that the public will evaluate. If you like my work, or science in general, please consider visiting our experiment's campaign webpage to learn more about the research and how you can contribute: To Selfie or Not to Selfie?

Starting tomorrow, you can also join our #ScientistSelfie challenge! Check out my Instagram tomorrow morning (link at the top of this post) for instructions on how to add to this much-needed experiment! Your attention and assistance can help us be better at our jobs, better describe our fields, and be more likely to encourage others to pursue a career as a trusted scientist. 

Check us out at experiment.com/scientistselfies to get involved and help our experiment!

Conservation Giving- What to Get The Person who Loves Nature and Wildlife

It's the end of the first semester of my PhD, and let me tell you: it happened too fast! I'm back in student mode once again submitting finals and papers and finishing what I think is the last formal statistic class I'll ever have to take (wooo!). FYI, biologists use lots of statistics. All that's left is for me to finish grading mammalogy papers, and then it's time to search for wildlife in Texas- I mean go see my family ;).

It's December 15th, which means a lot of humans are frantically trying to sort out those holiday gifts. We always try to buy local, ecologically-conscious or educational gifts that are useful in the long term, so I thought now might be a good time to promote some conservation and nature-centric options for your gift-giving needs. Conservation is cool year round, of course, and in 2017 our efforts in conservation will be more important than ever (more on that later). If you're looking for unique gifts from reputable organizations, look no further. These are great options for biologists of all ages and skill levels, and these supplies and organizations are trusted by biologists every single day.

Make a conservation donation in someone's name.

1. The Nature Conservancy

2. The Ocean Conservancy

3. The Xerces Society

4. The Orianne Society

5. Panthera

6.  Turtle Survival Alliance 

7. Working Dogs for Conservation 

Get some field guides:

1. SIbley Guide to Birds

2. Peterson's Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians

3. Peterson's Field Guide to Mammals

4. Mammal Tracks & SIgn

5. Peterson's Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North American North of Mexico

Buy some cool books:

1. Wild Mammals of North America; Biology, Management and Conservation. Fedlhamer et al.

2. The Wildlife Techniques Manual; Research (Vol I); Management (Vol II). Nova Silvy.

3. Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians; Kentwood D. Wells.

4. Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species. Michael Lannoo

5. Herpetology: An Introductory Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles. Vitt and Caldwell.

6. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Petranka.

7. Handbook of The Mammals of the World (Vol 1: Carnivores). Wilson and Mittermeier.

8. Snow Leopards- Biodiversity of the World: Conservation from Genes to Landscapes. McCarthy.

9. Animal Skulls- Guide to North American Species. Elbroch.

Gift a state or national park membership

Help them help nature with gear:

1. Binoculars

2. Headlamp

3. GPS Unit

4. Infrared camera trap

This is only a partial list of the great things you can do to help and promote stewardship for wildlife conservation! What did I leave out? Let me know! Happy holidays!

 

 

Snow Leopards at the University of Delaware (wait a second...)

If you follow me on social media, you likely already know what the post title is about. For those just dropping in, I'm excited to clarify what it means: I'm doing snow leopard research. I recently accepted a PhD position in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware investigating landscape genetics/genomics of snow leopards. I'm working with Panthera, one of the world's premier wild cat conservation organizations. I'm collaborating with some really excellent scientists in both genetics and quantitative ecology, and our efforts will address range-wide questions about what structures populations of snow leopards and how this could change in the future. To say that I am excited for this project, and to complete my PhD, is a gross understatement.

A curious snow leopard. Photo by Panthera.

A curious snow leopard. Photo by Panthera.

Over the next four years I'll be extracting DNA from individual snow leopard scat (that's poop) to process their genotypes- think of this as unique puzzle pieces of DNA- and comparing them with other snow leopards. Identifying genetically distinct populations can be very informative for wildlife conservation and management, and is much needed for snow leopards. If you don't think this sounds too exciting (and I have no idea why you wouldn't- I mean come on, science!), don't worry- I'll be traveling overseas as well. I'll be doing lab work in at least one country and field work in another. I'm excited to traverse the high elevation mountains of Asia, and hopefully spot these elusive cats. 

Getting excited about coyote scat!

Getting excited about coyote scat!

I've been in Delaware for just under a month, and things are going really well. I'm a teaching assistant for mammalogy, which is a class that focuses on the natural history, anatomy, physiology, and evolution of mammalia. Being a student again is actually quite exciting, as I enjoy the fast pace of academia and being part of an environment so saturated with scientific minds. I am actually getting ready to proctor my student's first big exam on bats, shrews and moles, and bones, so be sure to check back soon for more posts on snow leopards, and a recap of my summer with Pacific martens. 

Snow leopards are habitat specialists in that they require areas of high elevation and low temperature. This makes them sensitive to issues like climate change. Photo by Panthera.

Snow leopards are habitat specialists in that they require areas of high elevation and low temperature. This makes them sensitive to issues like climate change. Photo by Panthera.

For those of you interested in learning more about the natural history, conservation needs, and current research efforts worldwide with snow leopards, check out the fantastic text "Snow Leopards: Biodiversity of the World: From Genes to Landscapes."

The Yellowstone Bison Incident

The Outbound Collective invited me to write a response to the Yellowstone bison incident that occurred last month. I've extracted it below from their website. Learn more about The Outbound Collective here.

A Response To The Yellowstone Bison Incident From An Actual Wildlife Biologist

I’ve been following the social media frenzy surrounding a bison calf in Yellowstone National Park. As a wildlife biologist, learning about the unfortunate event in which a man picked up a bison calf and placed it into his car elicited an array of responses, from anger to exasperation to defense, and, when combined, merits a much-needed discussion concerning perceptions of wildlife management. As a society, we need to do better regarding why we think it’s okay to interfere with wildlife. As a biologist, I can tell you why it’s not.

Based on press releases, we know that the tourist in question encountered a newborn bison in the park, physically put it in his vehicle, and transported it to a park ranger facility because he thought it was cold (for more details, see here). The man was cited for disturbing wildlife. However, after a two-day attempt by park rangers to reunite the calf with its herd, park officials made the difficult decision to euthanize the animal. These events paint a sad but all too common picture in which humans tampering with wildlife results in detrimental, and often fatal, outcomes for the animal.

The United States is home to 59 protected areas known as national parks, one of which is the iconic Yellowstone National Park. For these places, the National Park Service, an agency of the Department of the Interior, is charged with managing publicly owned natural resources (which include wildlife). The great gift of the national park system, and for any wild place in general, is that the wellbeing of wildlife and wild places depends on visitors exercising good judgement. When put plainly, this means following the rules.

While many of us recognize the good intentions of the tourist, he did not follow Yellowstone’s rules regarding safely viewing wildlife. The signage is everywhere, and the words are clear: do not approach wildlife. As a compassionate human being, I admire his concern for animal welfare, but this does not justify a blatant disregard for park rules. From a human safety standpoint, this was astronomically stupid, as bisonare extremely aggressive when protecting their young. From a wildlife standpoint, this caused the unnecessary death of a wild animal.

But, why exactly are people angry?

This depends on who you ask. All I had to do was hop on Twitter to see the public outrage against the tourist, the park rangers, and even the mother bison. People are upset that someone ignored park rules and potentially caused a bison to abandon her calf. People are upset with the mother bison for rejecting her baby. People are also extremely angry that park officials euthanized the animal instead of sending it to a sanctuary. While I, too, am exasperated that negative human-wildlife interactions are increasing, many of these responses very clearly illustrate a gross misunderstanding of wildlife behavior, ecology, and management.

Foremost, it should be pointed out that the bison calf may have already been abandoned by its mother prior to being picked up by the tourist. Allegedly, the animal was unattended by an adult. In nature, parents do sometimes abandon their young - sometimes unprovoked - even in national parks. When it does happen, as wildlife biologists and managers we aim to not interfere with natural processes. Yes, nature can be cruel, but unknown animals die without our knowing it all the time. This is part of the circle of life - when something dies, other things get to live as a result. However, human interference with wildlife can cause mothers to reject their offspring, and with (valiant) ranger efforts to reintroduce the calf to the herd failing, park officials thought it kinder to euthanize the animal than to watch it starve or get hit by a vehicle. To answer the question of why the calf wasn’t sent to a sanctuary: because the space and finances do not exist. The approved quarantine facility needed to ensure that the calf didn’t transmit diseases like brucellosis to captive bison herds was/is not in place, and there are laws regulating the transport of wild animals into private ownership. These alternatives were not possible, which means that the abandoned calf would have been left to starve or become prey. While these are natural events, the human involvement and therefore cause was not, and the animal was euthanized. There is no doubt that this decision weighed heavy on park officials. I am sad that they had to make this decision, but I support the park.

Wildlife biologists are stuck between a rock and a hard place on this, and many other human-wildlife interaction issues. This situation demonstrates why we should always leave wildlife alone. I spend a lot of time as a biologist talking about how wildlife don’t actually need our help. They don’t need to be saved from nature, and even when they do, it’s not our job to save them. That may seem counterintuitive, harsh even, but wildlife conservation is about populations, not individuals. Yellowstone National Park is not a zoo, or a sanctuary, or a wildlife rehabilitation center. The goal of wildlife managers is to maintain ecological processes, and this does not include pulling wildlife out of populations and throwing them into captivity for the sake of keeping them alive. However, this doesn’t mean that wildlife managers are callous about wildlife - just the opposite. I am a wildlife biologist because I am in awe of, in love with, and constantly seek to conserve wildlife and wild places. Natural ecosystems are complex machines where birth and death play key roles in the perseverance of that community, and no amount of emotion or opinion can override these facts. When we assume that experts are wrong simply because we disagree with their actions or their advice, we make it more difficult to accomplish common goals. Our current social environment dictates that experts are not allowed to disagree with emotions. In the case of the bison calf, and many human-wildlife issues, do-gooders are at odds with wildlife experts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter if the tourist had good intentions, as it was misguided, against park rules, and resulted in the death of the animal.

By thinking that we are allowed to interfere with wildlife if our intentions are good, or that it’s okay to break the rules in certain circumstances, we hurt wildlife. As a wildlife biologist, I spend very little time interacting with animals, and that is because human-wildlife interactions are never good for the animal. For these situations, it is always best to trust the experts. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be involved with YOUR wildlife. In the United States, wildlife are publicly owned, and you should enjoy them and develop opinions and affinities and appreciations. However, it is important to recognize that there are those who have dedicated their lives, educations, and careers to learning how to properly manage our resources, and that good intentions do not equate with expertise. Just like going to the doctor for a medical diagnosis, leaving wildlife to wildlife experts is the best way to ensure that you as well as the animals we love are safe.

Because our community is full of wonderful people willing to respect wildlife and safety regulations (unlike these guys), I thank you for being part of our team effort to conserve our wild places - conservation is truly a grassroots effort, and your support is paramount. It’s easy to be an animal hero and wildlife advocate without “helping” wildlife - if you see an animal you think is hurt, abandoned, or sick, please don’t take matters into your own hands. Depending on where you are, calling a park ranger or local biologist is the best way to ensure that wildlife do not meet an unnecessary end. Hopefully this bison calf’s death can generate a paradigm shift in how we want to influence wildlife - when this happens, the death will no longer be in vain.

WHOA Magazine

I recently did an interview with Hatie Parmeter, the founder of WHOA Magazine, a women's outdoor magazine that features stories on women who like to be outside. We spent a lot of time talking about the importance of getting young people interested in and involved with nature and the outdoors. We also talked about my job as a wildlife biologist, and I was able to share some fun experiences I've had over the years. I am so excited to share this interview with you, as WHOA Mag really captured my enthusiasm for the outdoors and why I am proud to be a biologist. I am also SUPER PUMPED to announce that I'll be representing this magazine as an ambassador! What does this mean? It means that WHOA Mag (which stands for Women of Heart and Outdoor Adventure) will be sponsoring my adventures in the wild and providing a great network of support in satisfying my outdoor curiosities. Take a moment to check out WHOA Mag and the interview here: 

In The Field With Wildlife Biologist Imogene Davis

 

 

Interview with Woman Scientist

I am so humbled and excited to share the lovely interview I had with Allison Lee of Woman Scientist. Woman Scientist is a fantastic platform that shares stories and interviews of women who have diverse interests and hobbies  in the science world. I am especially honored to spend time with this great community, as the purpose of Woman Scientist is to inspire, empower, advise and encourage women to pursue their careers in science. 

Be sure to sign up for the Woman Scientist newsletter so you can learn more about awesome women in science!

Click the link below:

Meet Wildlife Biologist Imogene Davis