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How Researchers Viewed YouTube Videos to Study Elephants

This is the wild, true story how a bunch of scientists and researchers got paid to view YouTube videos to learn more about elephants!

Researchers Utilized YouTube Videos in a Study With Wild Elephants

How do you use social media? Some people use it to connect with their friends and family members. Others use it primarily for entertainment purposes. That’s expected, as most of these platforms are designed with those in mind. However, some platforms also serve unintended purposes.

Social media platforms, especially YouTube, have become great educational tools. The popularity of “how-to” videos attests to that; users turn to the platform to learn new things or skills. Also, the presence of many videos about a specific topic provided researchers with many materials they could use for their studies. For instance, Indian researchers used YouTube to learn more about elephant behavior. If those videos did not exist, they would still be working on the study now. But since they do, the paper is now published in the journal “Royal Society Open Science.”

What The Study’s About

We all know how humans react to losing a loved one. And some materials show evidence that some animals also have certain reactions when it happens to them. Apes and dolphins, for example, respond to a group member’s death. This behavior is mostly seen in mothers losing their offspring.

At the Indian Institute of Science, researchers noted that almost nobody did a research study to observe how elephants respond to that. Sanjeeta Pokharel is a biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and one of the researchers. She told the New York Times that there was news and newspaper documentation about it. However, “there was no scientific documentation.” So, the research team took it upon themselves to conduct the study. 

If researchers decided to do this study decades ago, it might have taken a lifetime to complete. They have to go out there and follow an elephant until a member of its herd dies. They can kill one to speed up the process. But that’s not very humane. Also, they may face legal troubles. On top of that, others will criticize them for the method they used to conduct their study.

Thankfully, resources are now at our fingertips. Thus, the researchers don’t have to do any of that. Instead, they can just open YouTube and search for videos that fit the topic. And that’s what the researchers did.

Using YouTube for the Study

Some animals are hard to study. That’s why little research has been done regarding their behavior. But the modern era has given researchers a fantastic tool. Open-source videos are found on the internet. The researchers can use those to expand their sample sizes and analyze rare behaviors in animals. They call this emerging trend “iEcology.”

The researchers in India used this approach to find out how Asian elephants react to losing one of their own. They used the keywords “elephant response to death,” “Asian elephant death,” and others on YouTube. With that, they were able to gather materials to watch and analyze Asian elephants’ thanatological responses.

The researchers focused on 39 videos that captured 2 instances of elephants mourning after a herd member’s death. One of the paper’s co-authors also provided one more video they could use. The said videos date from 2010 to 2021. 

The researchers found a common theme in Asian elephants’ mourning behavior using the YouTube videos they watched.

Asian elephants tend to guard over the bodies of the deceased and regularly change their postures. Also, they made noises and investigated the corpse using their legs and trunks.

The researchers also noted that the elephants periodically reassured each other while responding to death. They touch each other with their trunks or heads or sniff each other. Aside from these two actions, Asian elephants also displayed other “calming-like” interactions. 

Researchers Utilized YouTube Videos in a Study With Wild Elephants

In five cases, the YouTube videos showed the female elephants picking up the bodies of their calves and carrying them through the forest. It is unusual behavior, suggesting that the mother elephants knew something was wrong.

Value of the Paper

Of course, it is also worth noting that the presence of the human recording these videos could have affected the elephants’ behavior. Nevertheless, they helped prove that elephants are highly intelligent beings. 

The researchers are still reluctant to assign human emotions to animals, though. Even though the elephants appear to be mourning as humans do, we can’t be sure if that’s really the case. That’s a topic that requires more research delving into animals’ motivations.

 Dr. Shermin de Silva, a biologist in Sri Lanka, who’s not involved in the study, says the paper still has value. It “helps bridge that emotional divide between humans and other species.”


The internet is full of readily available data. You can find them on web pages, social media platforms like YouTube, and other data platforms. And the production of this data does not stop. For instance, users upload 500 hours of video on YouTube per minute. And there are already more than 800 million videos on the platform. The addition of YouTube Shorts also gave people more ways to upload content on YouTube. So, saying there are tons of available data on the platform alone is an understatement.

That said, the internet is providing novel opportunities for researchers. They call this new research approach “iEcology.” It is the study of patterns and processes in the natural world using digital data generated for other purposes.

Researchers Utilized YouTube Videos in a Study With Wild Elephants

In the above example, the researchers used videos of elephants on YouTube to observe their mourning behavior. Another example is using videos on the internet to observe how red and gray squirrels groom and feed in urban scenarios.

The best thing about this approach is it is low-cost since the data is freely available. Researchers only need a computer/smartphone and an internet connection. Then, they can access these videos.

That said, it is plausible that iEcology would experience rapid development in the coming years. It may become one of the major research approaches in ecology. One can also see it getting enhanced by automated content analysis, the internet of things, web scraping, apps, and other emerging technologies.

As the world’s most popular video website, YouTube will also play a significant role in iEcology’s development. If you want to support them and their efforts on YouTube, try our favorite top sites to buy YouTube views and help them grow their channel organically!


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