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Biodiversity Exploitation for Online Entertainment

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Anthropogenic wildlife exploitation threatens biodiversity worldwide. With the emergence of online trading which facilitates the physical movement of wildlife across countries and continents, wildlife conservation is more challenging than ever. One form of wildlife exploitation involves no physical movement of organisms, presenting new challenges. It consists of hunting and fishing “experiments” for monetized online entertainment. Here we analyze >200 online videos of these so-called experiments in the world's largest video platform (YouTube). These videos generated about half a billion views between 2019 and 2020. The number of target species (including threatened animals), videos, and views increased rapidly during this period. The material used in these experiments raises serious ethical questions about animal welfare and the normalization of violence to animals on the Internet. The emergence of this phenomenon highlights the need for online restriction of this type of content to limit the spread of animal cruelty and the damage to global biodiversity. It also sheds light on some conservation gaps in the virtual sphere of the Internet which offers biodiversity-related business models that has the potential to spread globally.
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BRIEF RESEARCH REPORT
published: 24 January 2022
doi: 10.3389/fcosc.2021.788269
Frontiers in Conservation Science | www.frontiersin.org 1January 2022 | Volume 2 | Article 788269
Edited by:
Anthony J. Giordano,
Society for the Preservation of
Endangered Carnivores and their
International Ecological Study
(SPECIES), United States
Reviewed by:
K. Anne-Isola Nekaris,
Oxford Brookes University,
United Kingdom
Bogdan Cristescu,
Cheetah Conservation Fund, Namibia
*Correspondence:
Rassim Khelifa
rassimkhelifa@gmail.com
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Animal Conservation,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Conservation Science
Received: 01 October 2021
Accepted: 21 December 2021
Published: 24 January 2022
Citation:
Khelifa R, Mellal MK, Mahdjoub H,
Hasanah N and Kremen C (2022)
Biodiversity Exploitation for Online
Entertainment.
Front. Conserv. Sci. 2:788269.
doi: 10.3389/fcosc.2021.788269
Biodiversity Exploitation for Online
Entertainment
Rassim Khelifa 1,2,3
*, Mohammed Khalil Mellal 4, Hayat Mahdjoub 4, Nur Hasanah 5and
Claire Kremen 1,2
1Department of Zoology and Biodiversity Research Centre, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada, 2Institute
for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada, 3Department of
Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada, 4Laboratoire de Biologie Eau et Environnement (LBEE),
Faculté des Sciences de la Nature et de la Vie et des Sciences de la Terre et de l’Univers, Université 8 Mai 1945, Guelma,
Algeria, 5Ecosystem Management, Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Anthropogenic wildlife exploitation threatens biodiversity worldwide. With the emergence
of online trading which facilitates the physical movement of wildlife across countries
and continents, wildlife conservation is more challenging than ever. One form of wildlife
exploitation involves no physical movement of organisms, presenting new challenges. It
consists of hunting and fishing “experiments” for monetized online entertainment. Here
we analyze >200 online videos of these so-called experiments in the world’s largest
video platform (YouTube). These videos generated about half a billion views between
2019 and 2020. The number of target species (including threatened animals), videos,
and views increased rapidly during this period. The material used in these experiments
raises serious ethical questions about animal welfare and the normalization of violence to
animals on the Internet. The emergence of this phenomenon highlights the need for online
restriction of this type of content to limit the spread of animal cruelty and the damage to
global biodiversity. It also sheds light on some conservation gaps in the virtual sphere of
the Internet which offers biodiversity-related business models that has the potential to
spread globally.
Keywords: animal cruelty, animal ethics, animal welfare, hunting, internet, wildlife, YouTube
INTRODUCTION
Biodiversity is threatened by anthropogenic factors worldwide (Johnson et al., 2017; Arneth et al.,
2020; Tickner et al., 2020). Excessive wildlife hunting has important consequences on population
dynamics and may lead to extinction (Khelifa et al., 2017; Xiao et al., 2021) and disruption
of ecosystem functioning (Peres et al., 2016; Bogoni et al., 2020). Wildlife has been hunted
and traded for centuries locally and internationally for consumption, ornamentation, clothing,
and medicine. Despite substantial investment in wildlife conservation, illegal trading maintains
substantial pressure on natural populations (Zhang and Yin, 2014; Van Roon et al., 2019; Xu
et al., 2020). More recently, the Internet has created a new landscape of online illegal trading
which amplifies the outreach, facilitates the trading process, and increases transactions nationally
and internationally (Sung and Fong, 2018; Wong et al., 2020). Due to the rapid evolution of
the Internet, wildlife conservation needs to be in a constant arms race to combat new emerging
online-based threats.
Online platforms and social media have unprecedented potential in sharing information and
connecting people. They have shown outstanding efficiency in public mobilization and fundraising
Khelifa et al. Wildlife Exploitation on YouTube
for humanitarian initiatives and environmental engagement
(Pantti, 2015; Vu et al., 2021). However, the same platforms also
present a serious threat in disseminating problematic material
(El Bizri et al., 2015; Lenzi et al., 2020; Mclean et al., 2021)
that might expand across countries and continents and inflict
major environmental damage. Here we document a new trend of
“hunting–fishing–experiments” (HFE) for online entertainment.
HFE videos are documentary-like content that captures on film
various unique ways of catching animals, often with unethical
and accessible methods. These “experiments” have become
popular on the Internet, particularly on YouTube, affecting both
a diverse array of taxa and their habitats. These practices both
raise serious ethical questions about normalizing violence to
animals and spreading content harmful to animal welfare and
present a new complex challenge for wildlife conservation.
Due to their global outreach, online platforms may contribute
indirectly to the disturbance of biodiversity in the wild on a global
scale (Sajeva et al., 2013; Pagel et al., 2020; Van Hamme et al.,
2021). YouTube, in particular, is the second most visited website
and the largest video platform in the world (Alexa Internet, 2020),
receiving 2.1 billion users in 2020 and >500 h of video uploaded
every minute (August 2020) (Statista, 2021). Because wildlife,
fishing, and hunting attract large viewership, practices captured
on video might likely be replicated by the public regardless of
their ethical aspect (Siddiqui, 2021). Furthermore, YouTube is
also a rewarding platform where video creators can earn money,
followers, and public acclaim (Burgess and Green, 2018), which
might accentuate the motivation to reproduce unethical hunting
and fishing content and increase its environmental impacts. To
date, there has been little surveillance of Internet activities likely
to harm wildlife within contemporary wildlife conservation.
Here, we document the HFE phenomenon by assessing its
spatiotemporal evolution, identify the target species, determine
the techniques used in the experiments, and investigate the
occurrence of a financial niche. Here, we analyze 206 videos
(total duration: 25.74 h) recorded between 01 Jan. 2019–10 Jan.
2020 on YouTube, and we specifically determine (1) the temporal
trend of the number of published videos and viewership, (2) the
identity of the target organisms, (3) the geographic distribution
of this activity, (4) the motivation and benefits from making
and publishing these videos, and (5) the material and techniques
used. In addition, we determine whether the current YouTube
surveillance mechanisms (including algorithm) are effective in
removing HFE content by checking the status of the video 7
months after our initial investigation. To our knowledge, this
phenomenon is relatively new, and thus the current contribution
sheds light on some conservation gaps that necessitate the
establishment of effective policies for regulating threats to
biodiversity currently marketed as online entertainment.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Background About HFE
The origin of HFE is most likely a derivative of the soda-
candy geyser experiment (a chemical reaction that induces a
rapid release of dissolved CO2from the beverage) (Van Looy,
2016) (Figure 1), which gained a lot of attention on the internet
in recent years. The first HFE videos on YouTube used the
soda-candy geyser experiment to catch fish. This consisted of
pouring the soda-candy mix into a fish burrow (a hole in the
ground), resulting in the escape of the fish from the water due
to suffocation. These videos became “viral” probably after being
shared through social media networks and recommended by
YouTube (Zhou et al., 2016). More HFE videos were uploaded
on the internet, targeting different burrowing species and using
different tools to catch them.
Data Collection and Analysis
To determine the number of videos containing unethical
hunting-fishing-experiment (HFE) on YouTube, we searched for
videos by looking for these keywords: “fishing experiments,
“fishing with soda,” “Coca Cola and Mentos Fishing,” “Coke
and Mentos fishing” and “hunting with soda” between January
5th and 10th, 2020. We used soda in the keywords because
it was consistently used in HFE (the main ingredient). After
clicking search, YouTube generates a list of videos related to the
keywords, and whenever a video is selected, YouTube suggests
other videos with similar content (so-called recommendations)
on the right-hand side of the watch page. Considering both
the generated and recommended list of videos provides a
good representation of the searched content on the platform.
We viewed all videos in the generated list as well as in
the suggested list, and we collected data only on videos that
included animals. For such videos, we recorded the channel
name, date of publication, number of views, likes, dislikes,
and comments, as well as the duration. We determined the
country of the video by combining information from vidIQ
(Google Chrome extension for YouTube analytics), asking the
owner of the video, and looking at the language they use
in the comment section of YouTube and social media. The
“tools” used for HFE were recorded and categorized into edibles
(non-animal material such as soda, candy, milk, spices etc.),
chemicals (e.g., detergent, toothpaste), and animal baits (e.g.,
ducklings, turtle, chicken). We also categorized these tools
into three categories of environmental invasiveness: less likely,
likely, and highly likely to affect the habitat quality, the target
species, and/or non-target species. Target species were identified
when possible and their IUCN conservation status was obtained
from the IUCN Red List (https://www.iucnredlist.org/). We
calculated the cumulative sum of the number of videos and
views across the date of publication. The target animal species
were grouped into classes (fish, reptile, mammal, amphibian,
bird, crustacean, and arachnid) and the frequency of each class
was calculated. Assessing the diversity of target species and
the potential environmental impacts of the material used is
important to evaluate the threat of HFE to biodiversity. In fact,
the diversification of the video content to entertain and satisfy an
audience with HFE could be a function of the number of target
species and materials used in fishing and hunting. To understand
this aspect, we assessed the temporal pattern of the number of
species and materials used.
Understanding whether there is a financial niche in HFE is
key to developing policies to limit this trend (Bennett et al.,
2017). To determine whether the video creator intended to
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Khelifa et al. Wildlife Exploitation on YouTube
BA C
Soda geyser experiment Filming HFE Uploading HFE on YouTube
Candy
FIGURE 1 | Emergence of the so-called hunting–fishing–experiments (HFE). (A) Soda geyser experiment: before HFE, a popular content on YouTube was the Soda
geyser experiment which consists of mixing soda with mint candy to provoke a chemical reaction that rapidly releases dissolved CO2from the soda. (B) Filming HFE:
recently, people started using the soda geyser (with other products) to fish and hunt animals that use burrows while recording on film. (C) HFE content is typically
edited in a documentary style then uploaded on YouTube.
FIGURE 2 | Temporal pattern of the hunting and fishing experiment videos published on YouTube during the period Jan 2019–Jan 2020. Cumulative number of
videos (red line, triangle) and views (blue line, circle). We note that the data presented here were only based on 1 year and does not take into account the potential
effect of seasonal variability in the vulnerability of species to exploitation in their natural environment (wet vs. dry season).
monetize the HFE content, we looked for the occurrence of ads
in the videos because the latter turn on when the user activates
the monetization. To obtain an estimation of the potential
amount of money that could be generated by the HFE videos
(in order to understand the motivation of making these videos),
we used the website Social Blade (https://socialblade.com/) which
is a website that presents data and analytics for major video,
streaming and social media platforms. We calculated the average
revenue from the minimum and maximum ([max +min]/2)
and estimated the rate of revenue earning by the number
of views.
According to YouTube, animal abuse content is “(1) Content
where animals are encouraged or coerced to fight by humans;
(2) Content that includes a human maliciously causing an
animal to experience suffering when not for traditional or
standard purposes such as hunting or food preparation; (3)
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Khelifa et al. Wildlife Exploitation on YouTube
FIGURE 3 | Animal groups targeted in the hunting–fishing–experiments with their IUCN red list status. NA, not available; DD, data deficient; LC, least concern; NT,
near threatened; VU, vulnerable; EN, endangered; CR, critically endangered. Top-right map shows the number of videos for each country.
FIGURE 4 | Diagram presenting potential measures that should be taken by different actors to solve the problem of hunting and fishing experiments (HFE) on the
internet. Combined efforts from international and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments, business companies, and the public are needed to
establish and apply measures that target the online platforms that spread HFE and demotivate the public from engaging in this kind of environmentally-damaging
activity.
Content featuring animal rescue that has been staged and
places the animal in harmful scenarios” (YouTube, 2021).
We think that HFEs are against the guideline of YouTube
and should be removed by the platform as they depict
violence or abuse toward animals. To determine whether the
YouTube algorithm is effective in detecting and removing
HFE content, we revisited all videos on 08th July 2020 (7
months after our initial assessment) and recorded whether the
video was still available or not (unavailability of the video
might reflect a content being taken down). For the videos
that were still available, we calculated the number of days
from their date of publication to 08th July 2020 to assess the
potential of HFE content to stay available on YouTube without
being removed.
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Khelifa et al. Wildlife Exploitation on YouTube
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Social Following and Financial Gain
There are financial benefits that come from advertisement
revenue generated by HFE videos. The channels that posted
videos are followed by an average of 183,696 subscribers (2,210–
1,510,000). The HFE videos have an average of 362.4 interactions
(comments) and 4.5 like:dislike ratio, which indicates that the
audience tends to like more than dislike the content. We found
that 90% were monetized. We found that videos generated a
revenue of 2$ per 1,000 views. On average, the videos made
5,642$ ranging from 1,282 to 10,003$.
Spread of HFE Content
We have gathered data on the HFE content on YouTube and
we found a remarkable increase in the number of videos during
January 2019 and January 2020 (total =206 videos) where
91.3% of them were uploaded between October and January
2020 (Figure 2). These videos accumulated 0.5 billion views
from 43 channels, equivalent to an average of 25,000 views per
day. Along with the rapid increase in the number of videos, an
increase in the number of channels uploading HFE content was
recorded (Supplementary Figure S1). Interestingly, the videos
originated from Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, India,
Singapore, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and China); an area that hosts
important biodiversity hotspots such as Sundaland and Nicobar
islands of India, Wallacea, Philippines, and Indo-Burma, India
and Myanmar, which harbor a total of 1,500–15,000 endemic
plants and 518–701 endemic vertebrate species, representing 0.5–
5 and 1.9–2.6% of global biodiversity of these groups, respectively
(Myers et al., 2000). Understanding the spatiotemporal evolution
of a new environmental threat is crucial to estimate the speed of
its geographic spread, pinpoint where immediate efforts should
be spent, predict its potential consequences on biodiversity, and
establish effective management plans.
However, it is difficult to determine the geographic spread
of HFE as such a practice could be carried out without
posting videos on the Internet. It might be that the geographic
distribution observed on YouTube is just the tip of the
iceberg. With the role of social media networks (e.g., Facebook,
Twitter, Reddit), the HFE phenomenon could have reached
other countries where poverty is high, biodiversity is easily
accessible, and environmental regulation is not effective. In
addition, our search was carried out only in English, and thus
might underestimate the extent of the phenomenon.
Target Species and Techniques
In the 206 examined videos, the number of target species
increased with time (Supplementary Figure S2), totaling 31
(Supplementary Table S1). These animal species included
mostly fish (71.4%), but also reptiles (13.1%), mammals (9.7%),
amphibians (frogs; 2.4%), birds (1.5%), crustaceans (1.0%),
and arachnids (0.5%). Worryingly, some of the target species,
particularly reptiles, were of conservation concern (Figure 3;
Supplementary Figure S3). For instance, the Chinese softshell
turtle (Pelodiscus sinensis) is listed as Vulnerable, the elongated
tortoise (Indotestudo elongate) and the endemic Siamese
crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) listed as Critically Endangered
on the IUCN Redlist. Reptiles have one of the lowest levels of
protection in the region (only 14% of their ranges are within
protected areas) (Hughes, 2017). From a conservation point
of view, there is a concern that the video creators do not have
the taxonomic knowledge to determine which species is of
conservation concern nor necessarily the will to adjust their
activities, were they to know this information. Together with the
increase in the number of target species for HFE, Southeast Asian
fauna is facing a new threat that disturbs natural populations
in the wild. Although the impact of HFE on the population
dynamics and ecosystem functioning is unknown, the potential
of the geographic spread of this trend to other countries expands
the ecological risks to the global level.
Material and Techniques of HFE
The material used in HFE is ethically questionable and
environmentally harmful. It involved using (1) edible products
such as soda, eggs, and mint candies; (2) chemical products
such as detergents, toothpaste and chemical rocks; and
(3) animals as live baits such as duckling, turtles and
lizards (Supplementary Figure S4). Most of these products
have toxic effects on the aquatic and soil organisms
(Supplementary Table S2), and could affect both target
and non-target species (Mousavi and Khodadoost, 2019). In
our analyzed videos, the number of materials used in HFE
increased with time (Supplementary Figure S1), suggesting an
intent to innovate in HFE through the diversification of material.
For instance, the catfish lay hundreds of eggs which are very
sensitive to chemical pollution (Esenowo and Ugwumba, 2010;
Ogundiran et al., 2010). In addition, extensive use of chemical
HFE might affect non-target species and alter the functioning of
the ecosystem (Bardach et al., 1965). Products such as detergents
have the potential to increase the phosphorus level in the water
and cause eutrophication (Kundu et al., 2015). There could also
be some indirect impacts on non-target animals that exploit
the polluted habitats. For example, many terrestrial animals use
aquatic habitats as a source of drinking water. Also, since the
burrowing animals are often the target of HFE, the polluted
holes could be a potential nest (e.g., turtles) or a shelter for
various non-borrowing animals (e.g., fox, mink, snake) (Lips,
1991; Galán and Light, 2017; Old et al., 2018). Furthermore,
using live vertebrates such as turtles and lizards as baits to catch
other animals is also problematic and unethical. Therefore, the
potential environmental impacts of the products used in HFE
is substantial.
HFE Removal on YouTube
All 206 videos seem to be against the guidelines of YouTube
for animal abuse. Of the 206 videos, only 64 (31%) videos were
no longer available after 7 months of our initial assessment,
which shows that the videos remained accessible to viewers for
an average ±SD duration of 236.9 ±52.8 days (179–427 days, N
=142) since the uploading time. This suggests that the YouTube
algorithm was unable to detect, flag, and remove the videos,
highlighting some practical limitations in the attempt to control
this phenomenon (Gorwa et al., 2020).
Frontiers in Conservation Science | www.frontiersin.org 5January 2022 | Volume 2 | Article 788269
Khelifa et al. Wildlife Exploitation on YouTube
Real or Fake?
While it is not clear whether the HFE videos are real or staged,
we still do not know how many trials have been made to create
the video, and thus it unclear how intense is the collateral
damage on species (potentially individuals sacrificed) and the
environment (the number of habitats destroyed before finding
the target animals). Even in the best-case scenario where the
specimens used in the fishing and hunting experiment were
returned to their original sites and no survival cost was inflicted
on the individual, the message that the videos convey is still
highly detrimental given the high outreach potential of YouTube.
The same experiment could be repeated by people who watch the
video because no disclaimer is displayed in the original videos.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE
MANAGEMENT OF HFE
Effective management of invasive and unethical hunting and
fishing methods requires the participation and collaboration
of different actors, including non-governmental organizations,
governments, private sector, and the public. Such a combined
effort is crucial in an era of a rapidly evolving Internet sphere with
unprecedented public outreach potential, particularly because
those new animal exploitations for virtual entertainment might
not be on the radar of conservation organizations. Here, we
present some recommendations that might serve as a basis for
policy makers to develop effective conservation plans that offset
the potential impact of this new emerging trend as well as other
virtual threats that might arise in the future (Figure 4).
Wildlife conservation organizations (e.g., The Nature
Conservancy, The World Wildlife Fund, International Union
for Conservation of Nature), animal rights organizations
(e.g., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and
governments should (1) create environmental education
campaigns and programs to raise the awareness of the public
about the risks and consequences of species over-exploitation
(Ploeg et al., 2011), (2) mobilize the public and supporters of
wildlife and animal rights organizations using social media to
coordinate massive reporting of online wildlife exploitation
to the hosting platform, (3) enter in discussions with the
chief executive officer and key executives of YouTube to
establish a long-term strategic plan that limits the spread
of animal ill-treatment, and (4) raise the awareness of
companies who use YouTube for advertisement about the
questionable wildlife videos to which their brand is sometimes
attached to.
Another important actor that has a long experience with
wildlife trade is CITES (Convention on International Trade
in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). While
CITES targets the physical movement of species through
trades, the Internet offers nowadays means to profit from
wildlife exploitation without the associated difficulties of trading
across borders. CITES should broaden their oversight and
include species exploitation for online entertainment as a
new emergent threat (Phelps et al., 2010; Jensen et al.,
2019; Wong et al., 2020). CITES should include this new
online threat in its framework, and the different parties
(signatory countries) should implement and enforce it in their
national legislation.
YouTube should stop the monetization of these videos
because it will likely demotivate people from producing and
promoting HFE on the Internet, and thus stop the supply of
the videos for a worldwide audience. YouTube should also
improve its ability to detect and remove the videos in a
timely manner by upgrading the existing algorithms which
identify and block wildlife exploitation content when it is
uploaded. While targeting the host of the videos is crucial,
it is also imperative to limit the role of social media in
spreading HFE content on the Internet. Major social media
platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) should also improve their
means of flagging the videos when they are shared and
restricting their spread. For example, Instagram has introduced
a warning system to protect users from viewing certain content.
eBay (one of the world’s largest online marketplaces) has
also strengthened its policy on deleting adverts of illegal
wildlife trade.
Although establishing a system of law enforcement is key
to combat this trend in the wild and on the Internet (i.e.,
actions on the supply side), it is also crucial to tackle the
demand side by raising awareness of the YouTube audience
about the potential impacts of HFE on biodiversity and animal
welfare (Thomas-Walters et al., 2020). These conservation
initiatives often require adequate human resources and funding,
which is sometimes challenging for poor countries such as
those in Southeast Asia (Lee et al., 2005; Lasco et al., 2010;
Von Rintelen et al., 2017). This is why mobilizing public
support through online crowdfunding is a critical step. Such an
endeavor might be carried out through a collaboration between
wildlife organizations and online influencers who regularly use
YouTube and social media. Some of the influencers with large
public following and outreach have shown active environmental
engagement. For example, in late 2019 a single influencer
raised $20 million for climate change mitigation through a
crowdfunding tree plantation campaign (1$/tree; teamtree.org).
More recently, a similar initiative called #teamseas aims at
removing 30 million pounds of trash by January 1st, 2022
(1$/pound of trash out of the ocean; https://teamseas.org/).
Such an union between conservationists and online influencers
might be an efficient long-term solution for countering the
propagation of environmentally-damaging content, promotion
of environmental education, and advocacy for biodiversity
conservation and sustainability to the general public.
DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENT
Data supporting this study are available on GitHub https://githu
b.com/rassimkhelifa/rassimkhelifa-Data_Khelifa_FrontiersInCo
nsSci.
AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
RK: conceptualization, data curation, formal analysis,
investigation, project administration, visualization,
Frontiers in Conservation Science | www.frontiersin.org 6January 2022 | Volume 2 | Article 788269
Khelifa et al. Wildlife Exploitation on YouTube
writing—original draft, and writing—review and editing.
MM and NH: data curation and investigation. HM:
data curation, investigation, and visualization. CK:
conceptualization and writing—review and editing. All
authors contributed to the article and approved the
submitted version.
FUNDING
RK is funded by the Swiss National Science
Foundation (P400PB_191139).
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
We thank all the persons for helping in identifying the
species. Thanks to Alejandra Echeverri for helpful discussions
and comments.
SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIAL
The Supplementary Material for this article can be found
online at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcosc.
2021.788269/full#supplementary-material
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