Why good information on the environment matters

Human-dominated landscapes tend to be homogenized in a that’s often invisible to us. Tourists visiting anywhere in the tropics expect a see lot of the same things — coconut trees, mangos, pineapples, bananas. Despite the fact that the tropics are some of the most biologically diverse regions of the planet, we see this artificial aggregation of a small number of common species. And alongside these intentional introductions are a whole lot of species that we have unintentionally spread around the world. Tramp species are species that have been spread around the world by human activity. Originally applied to ant species that had managed to find their way around the world like tramps or stowaways, the term has come to describe a group of species that are usually associated with human activity. While some tramp species become invasive species, most do not.

Most people are familiar with the invasive species, but might have a hard time separating that concept from the related idea of introduced species. Familiar ideas like these got added to Wikipedia first (the invasive species article was created in 2002, while the introduced species article was created in 2003). The article on tramp species, on the other hand, wasn’t created until November 2021 when a student in Sarah Turner’s Advanced Seminar in Environmental Science class created the article. It’s a concept that fits an important part in our understanding of this topic, but as long as it had no Wikipedia article, it’s likely to be invisible to many people learning about the topic. Since undergraduates rely heavily on Wikipedia as a freely available alternative to textbooks, the topics that are missing from Wikipedia are more likely to slip through the cracks for students learning ecology.

Disease, as we have learned during the Covid-19 pandemic, is more than just the interaction between a pathogen and its host. There’s a whole world of environmental factors that means that there’s much more to disease transmission than simply infection rates. These sorts of things are part of the science of disease ecology, but more than a year into the pandemic, Wikipedia’s article on the topic was just a short overview. A student editor in the class was able to transform the article into something much more useful and information to to readers.

Climate change affects not only global temperatures, but also rainfall patterns and sea level rise. By expanding the ice sheet model and flood risk management articles, student editors were able to improve the information that’s out there for people trying to understand these important tools for forecasting changes in the world we live in. Other new articles created by students in the class include CLUE model, a spatially-explicit landuse-change model, Cooper Reef, an artificial reef in Australia, Indigenous rainforest blockades in Borneo, the Impacts of tourism in Kodagu district in Karnataka, India, and Soapstone mining in Tabaka, Kenya. Other existing articles that they made major improvements to include Alopecia in animalsBlond capuchin and Stream power.

Wikipedia’s coverage of environmental science is uneven. Many are covered well, but there are large gaps. Other articles suffer because they’re incomplete, badly organized, or out of date. This leaves a lot of room for student editors to make important contributions.

Image credit: Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons

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