There’s a wolverine roaming my neighborhood, hiding in city parks and ready to snarf up any wayward puppies and kittens. At least that’s what some of my neighbors believe.
It started when I joined one of those neighborhood apps that connect you with the local community and share information on road closures, new restaurants, safety issues. That sort of thing. I was expecting a certain degree of useless info: this is social media, after all.
I was not expecting the wildlife.
Wildlife, it turns out, is one of the most popular topics. Often, people report sightings or share tips related to the local fauna. I see such posts and am drawn to them like the proverbial moth to a flame. Like the moth, I come to regret the decision.
Recently I saw a mention of a wolverine. I live in Boise, Idaho. Now, a wolverine is theoretically possible. Wolverines are found in Idaho, but they are rare, elusive and tend to live deep in the mountain wilderness. A wolverine in a city park?
The voice in the back of my head was screaming, “Don’t open it!”
You know what I did because you’ve done the same thing.
It was not a wolverine. It was stocky, short-legged and grizzled, with a striped face: a badger.
A badger is a very cool sighting in its own right. They live on the outskirts of Boise and turn up from time to time in city limits. It’s not exactly common, but there are badgers. I thought this would be a straightforward wildlife ID scenario, which proves that I am incredibly naïve.
Team Wolverine was out in full force, arguing their case. I provided several resources and pointers on how to tell a badger from a wolverine, including a link to my blog on avoiding wildlife misidentification. I thought I was being helpful. Other participants reacted with hostility. The original poster noted she had received more than 400 responses, and they were evenly split between wolverine and badger.
One woman wrote to me that her brother, who lived in a rural area, told her that wolverines were leaving the mountains, moving into towns and eating pets, a statement that is not remotely true.
I became annoyed, then exasperated, then I deleted my responses.
A wolverine roaming town is a bit of an extreme example, but it’s hardly an isolated one. I see bobcats that are identified as mountain lions or lynx, foxes that are coyotes, coyotes that are wolves. There is a popular sub-genre of the wildlife post that warns of extreme dangers posed by local wildlife. Any missing pet is the victim of a coyote. Any snake is venomous.
One post began “Keep a close eye on your pets and kids!” The threat? A red-tailed hawk.
It’s tempting, of course, to attribute all this to an increasing disconnect between people and nature. In reality, wildlife myths and folklore have been around for a very long time. But social media can help spread misidentification and misinformation.
Then again, one poster on the wolverine issue asked, “What’s it matter what people call it?”
I admit, as a naturalist, that my first response was inner rage. Upon further review, though, it’s a worthy question.
What’s It Matter?
For the first time in history, most of the world’s people will live in cities. While wildlife is often presented as living in wilderness areas and national parks, the reality is it is all around us. Many conservationists argue that a key to a biodiverse future is for people to learn to live alongside wild creatures.
And that’s where wildlife misidentification and misinformation influence how we perceive local biodiversity. The wrong information can make it seem like we can’t possibly live alongside wild animals.
Misinformation leads to people killing innocuous snakes. It turns a nature preserve from a valued public resource to a safe harbor for voracious predators and pests. People call for predator control. Neighbors ignore the state agency when it asks them to take down their birdfeeders due to a disease outbreak, because someone on the neighborhood app called it a hoax.
It leads to a devaluing of life around us, making coexistence that much more difficult.
For me, I will own that there’s a personal element. And it’s this. As a science communicator, if I can’t even convince someone that a badger is not a wolverine, what possible hope do I have of changing minds about climate change?
I see the wolverine post and I suspect, deep down, that my work is not making a difference, will never make a difference. I’m communicating to people who are already on board the Nature Train. I’m not changing minds.
However, if I take a step back, I realize there’s a different way to see all this. Perhaps my worldview as a fanatic naturalist is getting in the way of seeing some hope here.
A Wild Opportunity
As I glance through all those wildlife posts, it suddenly hits me. This is not a reason for doom-and-gloom. It’s pretty obvious: People are interested in wildlife.
They don’t see it as a boring topic. It’s of intense interest. And yes, maybe there’s wrong information floating around, but surely this is an opportunity?
It’s hardly a secret that many people turned to nature activities during the pandemic. They’re noticing what’s happening outside their window or the city park. As my friend Megan Grover-Cereda, communications director for The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, wrote to me, “Many people are really seeing for the first time.”
They’re seeing the nature right around them, and wondering, and interpreting. Where they go for information matters. How we provide it does, too.
Often, conservation communicators think in terms of educating around the big, global, complicated issues. But there’s a role for helping people understand and appreciate the local, the small, the overlooked. Getting into an argument on a neighborhood wolverine post is exactly the wrong way to go about it. But there is much to be done. Schools, community groups, zoom meetings, live conferences (hopefully) and various storytelling outlets offer ways to educate those with a genuine interest. It can offer useful information on coexistence for those becoming interested in nature, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
I speak to a lot of university classes, and I’m heartened that young scientists recognize that publishing in journals isn’t enough. They want to reach those outside their fields. And many understand that whatever they study, they have a role to play.
I think of David Steen, the biologist who tirelessly answers snake ID questions and counters snake myths on Twitter. He knows that snake misidentification leads to dead snakes, and so he keeps offering his assistance. My friend Solomon David does similar things for the overlooked fish, also often unfairly vilified. Graduate student Lauren Pharr loves sharing the inner lives of the birds that live among us.
I’m sure they all feel at times deflated and demoralized, as they put the time into countering a wildlife myth, only to have it pop up again a week later. I’m sure they get tired of answering the same questions. But they persist, because they recognize many people are genuinely curious, and that presents an opportunity.
All of us – science communicators, scientists and amateur naturalists – can help share what we know, respectfully and in ways that matter. Just don’t get in a tangle with the metaphorical wolverine lurking on the trail.
Join the Discussion
Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of the role social media plays in disseminating misinformation about nature and wildlife, and for your reflections on the importance of clear communications from science writers. I do wonder though, why so many people are so invested in being right, even when they acknowledge that they are not subject matter experts. Why is it so hard for people to admit being wrong? Misidentifying a badger as a wolverine is not going to corrupt one’s immortal soul. What’s so hard about saying, “I did some more research, and now I’m doubting my original ID of this animal.” There must be some psychological explanation for this (and not being an expert in anything, I don’t know what it is).
Matt – I am sadly not surprised. When I worked for IDFG (Panhandle) I was the go-to person for track identification, wolverine and lynx since this was a lot of my field before I was chained to the office. Several time (amazingly) people came in with photos of wolverine tracks in town – usually on a golf course. The tracks were raccoon. They would argue with me and I would end up telling them to believe what they wanted, but they would be embarrassing themselves.
One of my counterparts in Boise took several calls about a cougar in a neighborhood on the edge of town and went there to look for evidence. He asked that people send photos if they spotted it again. They did and he received several photos of little Buttercup (my made up name) stocking grasshoppers in the shrubs.
In the early 90s I worked for an animal welfare organization the operated a companion animal shelter and a wildlife rehab clinic in the Pacific NW. We provided night and holiday emergency transport of injured critters to the appropriate medical facility, and received calls at night requesting help from concerned citizens. The identification was always interesting. Once a caller told me she had caught an injured duck, put it in a box and left it on the doorstep of our clinic. Something made me cautious about opening that box, which was a good thing because it was actually a grebe, still quite capable of a lightening fast strike toward the eye of a predator (me) lifting the flaps. The most unusual request came one early morning from a man getting ready to leave for work. He wanted me to come quickly and remove a ferocious pink armadillo that was hissing and lunging at him in his garage. I was pretty sure what it would turn out to be: an opossum – the most frequently, and most imaginatively, misidentified common critter we dealt with. Sure enough, it was. I guess all the man saw was the pink wide open mouth of the poor beast in the early morning light.
Thank you for talking about the huge amount of misinformation about nature in general. I’m constantly reminded how far we have distanced ourselves from nature in all its forms, but I hadn’t considered folklore as a factor (although a small one). Putting a positive spin on it is really helpful to me. “It shows they’re interested in nature” is an excellent take on what I find to be a very frustrating issue. It’s spring, so people are kidnapping birds and fawns and they’re outdoors more and adding to human/nature conflicts. This article gave me a good vantage point of how to not feel hopeless about the mistakes we’re making and the amount of misinformation in social media, but that we must still persist in trying to educate.
When I see similar alleged sightings on that app, I do the same moth-to-a-flame thing: I click, only to find out that we have “eagles” in our backyards, just waiting to snatch our pets and kids (or similar exclamations). When I post in response, and enlighten them that what they took a photo of is a red-tailed hawk, and that no, it will not fly off with your kids or pets, I’m met with skepticism and “well, I know somebody who knows somebody who has a cousin that this happened to.” I’ve studied raptors, especially, and other wildlife, literally from third grade on into college and beyond, and volunteered many hours in their hands-on care. But as you’ve found, experience means little to a closed mind. Frustrating, but I’ll try to think more optimistically!
The snap decisions made when someone sees an animal or bird or reptile that they have never seen before amaze me. With pretty much everyone (not me) carrying a cell phone with them & having access to the internet and sites that accurately depict wild beings – why believe facebook or someone on social media? Why the automatic response to kill it, capture it, or pinpoint where it is for the whole world?
I have lived in NYS my whole life – small town & now in the country. My little 4 acres likely has more creatures living on it than I realize. The deer & apparently, a fox, plus all the chippies, squirrels & birds – love seeing them and just knowing they are there – living their lives. Thats enough for me.
I guess I suffer from a lack of patience when others just dont care to understand nature. All it needs is for humans to live & let live. Simple, right?
Thank you. I get so overwhelmed by the madness out there, that I just want to turn it all out. You remind me that the good guys are still out there working, trying, and putting there knowledge in the hands of people who care. Don’t get discouraged…I must remember to tell myself a hundred times a day.
Thanks for reminding me.
I, too, live in Boise and I have seen some of the misidentification first hand. Once, I was biking the Greenbelt, something I do every day, and I found a coyote. I immediately wanted to share it, so I pointed it out to a woman biking past me. She glanced at the coyote and said, “Are you sure it isn’t a mountain lion?” I was dumbstruck. I can understand that not everyone knows the difference between a Red-tailed Hawk and an Osprey, but I thought everyone knew the difference between a canine and a feline.
Thanks for sharing. I have had similar experiences on the greenbelt. Several times I have seen people pointing to “wolves” that were actually coyotes.
I love the shift in focus, and the open discussion of progression from frustration and outrage to noting the true basis of common interest. Thank you for your ongoing work!
Well Matt, looking at the previous replies, you are to some degree preaching to the choir. But please don’t stop. I appreciate that the Nature Conservancy gives you and others like Justine and Kris a place to share your writings. I tell every fisherperson I come across about the “50 Fish, 50 States: A Conservation Journey” columns. Thanks!
Thanks Steve. We appreciate your support!