Researchers also watch animal videos on YouTube. But not for the same reasons

Scientific videos on Youtube can be an asset in scientific research.

Scientific videos on Youtube can be an asset in scientific research.


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In a recent study, researchers analyzed elephants’ reaction to death through Youtube videos. This data documented in video makes it possible to understand behaviors that are rarely observed.

Atlantico: In a recent study, “Seeing the Rare Through Public Glasses: Insights into Carrying Dead Calves and Other Endatological Reactions in Asian Elephants Using YouTube Videos,” you analyzed elephants’ response to death through Youtube videos. What did you learn from this specific method?

Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel and Nachiketha Sharma: There are very few studies of elephants’ thanatological behavior. Most of the knowledge comes from African elephants. In the case of Asian elephants, the information is limited to anecdotal evidence. Here we have tried to construct a preliminary repertoire of Asian elephants’ reactions to their dead offspring. YouTube videos clearly show that Asian elephants carry their dead calf using the trunk or by pulling the leg or other body parts of dead individuals, sniffing, guarding, watching and sometimes vocalizing while responding to dead individuals. The results of this study indicate that Asian elephants, like African elephants, appear to have some sense of “curiosity” and “grief-like” reactions and may appear to “understand” the welfare of other elephants. The study also suggests that elephants’ thanatological reactions may be a retention of ancestral traits during proboscis evolution.

You state that you have observed “the importance of open access video data on digital platforms to understand behaviors that are rarely observed”. How does Youtube video bring this? What has it brought to your study?

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Asian elephants are one of the most charismatic species, but we know very little about their behavior. It is very important for us to have a comprehensive understanding of the elephants’ behavior in order to better manage and preserve the wild elephant population. However, it is a challenge to observe some natural events / behaviors such as birth and death in dense jungles and rugged terrain. The purpose of this study was to explore one of the least studied behaviors of Asian elephants, namely the response of elephants to the death of their parents. However, it is rare to witness an elephant’s death, and it’s even rarer to see other elephants react to a parent’s death! In this case, social media platforms like YouTube can be very useful. Thanks to YouTube videos, we were able to observe several cases of elephants responding to deceased relatives, which would have been very difficult to record on our own.

Is the use of video an appropriate compensation for field research when excursions are impossible (eg in a Covid context)?

In general, there is no parallel to field data collection. Observation and collection of information directly in the field is very important to achieve an overall behavioral understanding of the target species. However, in difficult situations, such as difficult field conditions or pandemic restrictions, YouTube videos can be an important alternative data source.

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What are the limits of the scientific use of YouTube videos?

YouTube videos come with a few caveats, especially when it comes to scientific research.

For example, the videos are taken by the public and generally do not follow scientific procedures. Videos usually contain background music and special effects that can hide important details. Moreover, the videos are sometimes short, suggesting that only a fraction of the behavioral repertoire is captured. The presence of humans during the recording of the video may also affect the behavior of the animal. All of these caveats should be taken into account when interpreting animal behavior from YouTube videos.

To find the study of Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel, Nachiketha Sharma and Raman Sukumar: click HERE

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