Zoo-run YouTube channels focus on entertainment rather than education, according to a new study.
The videos also disproportionately focus on mammals, rather than reflecting the diversity of zoo animals.
Conservation was at the center of just 3% of zoo videos in the study – but she found that curatorial content in videos was gradually increasing.
The study evaluated the most recent and most viewed videos, so the results partly reflect the audience’s preference for certain species and content.
Of the animals that appeared in the most viewed zoo videos, the top nine were mammals – with giant pandas at the top of the list – and the only non-mammals were penguins in tenth place.
“Their key question is, what are zoos for on YouTube?” said Dr Paul Rose of the University of Exeter.
“If the goal is to get people to visit the zoo, then focusing on entertainment and popular species might make sense.
“That way wildlife and conservation education can be done once people get to the zoo, where they will spend a lot more time than they would watching a YouTube video.
“However, some zoos have a large following on YouTube, so they need to think carefully about how they represent different classes of animals and how they can create educational material in interesting and accessible forms.
“If an animal is in a zoo’s collection, there should be a way to promote it.”
Dr Rose said he was encouraged to see increased attention to conservation in zoo videos.
For example, videos of animals of conservation concern on the IUCN Red List have been shown more often in recent years.
Lead author Thomas Llewellyn, a graduate of the UWE Science Communication Unit, said: “It is important that zoos produce a variety of conservation-oriented content for a range of different animals.
“While it’s reassuring to see YouTube channels uploading more conservation-focused videos lately, this research is especially important for conservation projects associated with these ‘pet animals’.
“There is no doubt that YouTube has the potential to become an effective and efficient tool for global conservation education, but more research is needed.”
The study information was gathered before the COVID pandemic, and the content posted on many zoo YouTube channels has changed dramatically since then.
“I’ve seen a lot more zoos do live video during the lockdown to explain the importance of their animal collections,” Dr Rose said.
“With zoo admissions essentially non-existent this year, the pandemic has only underscored the importance of social media for this type of online awareness,” Llewellyn added.
Researchers evaluated the content of 1,000 videos from 20 zoological organizations (50 most viewed videos from each channel) from 2006 to 2019. More than 75% of these videos focused on mammals.
In addition, the educational content of a sub-sample of 300 of the most viewed and most recent videos from three zoo YouTube channels was cataloged and rated for the period 2016 to 2019.
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Material provided by University of Exeter. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.