What do Asian elephants, peacock spiders and a cockatoo named Snowball have in common?
All are stars of online videos, collectively amassing tens of millions of views. And the behavior captured in some of these videos has been deemed scientifically significant.
Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel and Nachiketha Sharma, both of the Indian Institute of Science, devoted their recent study to findings – taken from YouTube videos – about elephants’ response to death.
“In three years of intensive field work, I have witnessed only one case of elephant death,” Sanjeeta explained. “It’s so rare – but almost everyone has a camera these days.” Simply using search terms like “elephant death” and “elephant reactions to death”, they found 24 cases of animals interacting with other people’s corpses.
Groups of elephants have been filmed tapping deceased family members with their trunks or apparently attempting to revive them with kicks. They even gathered, like a vigil, next to the remains. “We also heard vocalizations – low rumbling sounds – that I had never heard before,” Nachiketha said. ‘
“However, the most striking thing for me was the calf carry,” he said. “They sometimes pick up a dead calf with their trunk and drag it away. There have even been cases of a female elephant using tusks to carry her dead calf.”
Whether this can be described as the elephant equivalent of grief or bereavement is hard to conclude, Sanjeeta said. But their apparent interest in death says a lot about how these animals think – and how smart they are. It also shows that there is evidence of rare displays of animal intelligence in the seemingly endless video library that is YouTube.
You certainly don’t have to be an animal researcher to disappear down a rabbit hole of animal videos online. But scientists are increasingly exploiting this freely available source of video data. Scientific information is gleaned from some unlikely – and comically entertaining – online footage.
“My favorite is a crow using what looks like a plastic cover like a snowboard on a roof,” recalled Professor Ximena Nelson from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
The clip cited by Ximena was allegedly filmed through the window of a building in a Russian city. The crow stands on a jar lid and glides over a snowy roof. He then goes back up and repeats the exercise. He seems to be having fun.
“It’s fun, but it’s also innovative in that it uses a tool,” says Ximena. “So here you have an example of using tools for fun. I think that says a lot about how smart this crow is, but also that he’s able to innovate in a scenario very unusual.”
Ximena pointed out that thousands of researchers spending hours outdoors trying to observe crows might never witness such behavior — let alone record it.
“Animals playing” – with other species or with unusual objects – is a popular online video genre.
And while it can be a fun distraction to watch, that fun itself can provide insight into the function of the game, which is actually a sort of biological puzzle. The game has no obvious goal. As Ximena says – “it’s not going to provide you with food or babies, at least not directly”.
Science in containment
YouTube and other online video platforms are a source of information that many researchers have also turned to during the past two years of lockdown.
“One of my students, for example – who is looking for examples of play in animals that have not been previously described – went down this rabbit hole. [during the pandemic]”, Ximena said. “They said, well, I can’t collect data from the field right now, so I’m going to collect it from YouTube.
There are more sequences available for studying species of the furry or feathered variety. Fewer people capture and upload videos of insects or other invertebrates. (Although the peacock spider dance seems to be its own category.) It is particularly useful for providing a window of access to difficult places and hard-to-study species.
One example is the videos uploaded by wealthy and lucky tourists who encounter animals in Antarctica.
“They might be able to film footage of predatory behavior in killer whales, which is rare behavior,” Ximena says. “You have to be there at the right time and what are the chances of the scientists being in the right place at great expense?”
But the animal stars of these movies aren’t always rare and elusive.
Łukasz Dylewski, from Poznan University of Life Sciences in Poland, used YouTube to find evidence of personality traits in red and gray squirrels. His study, in addition to showing that gray squirrels were more aggressive than red ones, also verified that these videos accurately reflect what scientists have seen in the wild.
“It’s a new approach to behavioral studies that can save researchers time,” Lukasz said, “we can increase sample sizes – or the number of animals we study, and [more easily] study of the behavior of species from other continents.”
In some cases, only one animal is required for the scientific investigation.
Snowball the dancing cockatoo – something of an online sensation – inspired his own Harvard-based study, which essentially concluded that it’s not just humans who enjoy music with a beat.
In an article published in Current Biology in 2019, the researchers wrote that Snowball “responds to music with remarkably diverse spontaneous movements using a variety of body parts, suggesting that parrots share this response with humans.”
Beyond the scientific virtues of these videos, Sanjeeta says, there’s a possible side effect of making people feel a bit more connected to nature and other species.
“Personally, when I see elephants, I see emotion. I see they might be grieving,” Sanjeeta says. “But of course my science needs more evidence.
“But when people just feel connected to these animals and feel emotional, hopefully that can help with elephant conservation, too.”
Research and video production by Maddie Molloy
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More about the mysteries of animal behavior investigated via YouTube at Inside Science on BBC Sounds