Science and Social media has a mixed history. Scientists are split in their opinions concerning the usefulness of social media in their work, often decrying the limitations of social platforms such as Twitter when attempting to communicate complicated concepts. However, recent work from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa has garnered a lot of attention due to the major role social media has played in unearthing the mysteries of our past.
In 2013, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger learned of a veritable treasure trove of hominid fossils in a location known as the Rising Star Cave. But there was a problem. The entrance to the cave was a mere 20 centimetres across, too small for Berger to fit through. He turned to social media, putting out a call for excavators who met the physical criteria needed to enter the cave. It only took a month before a team of six scientists were hard at work in the cave, whilst others watched on via video.
Less than two years after the initial social media call and over 1,500 bones and teeth from early humans had been recovered. However, researchers were needed to analyse these fossil so Berger once again turned to social media. This time more than 30 early-career scientists were recruited to study the remains. The result of this collaboration between science and social media is the possible discovery of a previously unknown human species, Homo naledi.
The team has high hopes for the ongoing work and it aims to publish more than a dozen papers on the findings – the first two of which were published on 10th September 2015 describing the anatomy of Homo naledi and the site at which they were found. That so many individuals were found at the same place has interesting implications for the evolution of human behaviour. The find is indicative of ritualised burial, a behaviour previously believed to be found only in later humans. To date, the earliest discovered human burial site is Sima de Los Huesos in Spain that dates back 430,000 years. However, the Rising Star Cave site could be much older and scientists are eagerly awaiting the results of radiometric dating.
Nevertheless, some scientists are still sceptical. Evolutionary biologist Jeffrey Schwartz suggests that there may be other species represented in the fossil finds. He points to a skull and some of the femurs unearthed as part of the work that, in his opinion, are reminiscent of a species known as Australopithecus sediba. Regardless of the result of this ongoing debate, this case study has revealed one thing. Social media has a key part to play in science and scientists are starting to take notice. There is currently a rise in citizen science projects involving the general public, science conferences are encouraging live tweeting and there are greater calls for open access data sharing amongst scientists and policy makers. This powerful combination of science and social media is the key to understanding the changing image of science in the public eye.