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You Can Help Net a Fluttering of Data Points

Making science fun: There's a network of butterfly researchers who eagerly want to know what species you've seen flitting about.
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The endangered Fender's blue butterfly is found only in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where it depends on a particular plant, Kincaid's lupine, which in turn is under assault from agriculture and urbanization. (PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF OREGON)

The endangered Fender's blue butterfly is found only in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where it depends on a particular plant, Kincaid's lupine, which in turn is under assault from agriculture and urbanization. (PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF OREGON)

If you’re looking for a good measuring stick for change in the world—whether in climate, land use, pollution—consider the butterfly. Not only are they sensitive to temperature changes, hot and cold, many of them will only lay eggs on specific plants which in turn are affected by things like temperature, urbanization, and land use. Butterflies are easy to recognize, do their flying in the open, and are charismatic as heck. (Sorry frogs!) Plus, they don’t live for long, which means problems or successes can be spotted as soon as next summer.

With those pluses in mind, a new citizen science initiative, eButterfly, is asking average people in the United States and Canada to observe the butterflies they come across and catalog online what they, the humans, have seen. Like birders from time immemorial (i.e. the late 18th century), you could of course do this on your own, obsessively building up a life list or perhaps pinning their winged carcasses on a board. But sharing your sighting of a Hayhurst’s scallopwing or a Weidemeyer's admiral with official lepidopterists—butterfly scientists—allows those researchers to extend their information-hungry antennae and make genuine use of a continent full of fluttering data points. (And your own life list can reside, virtually, in a site where someone wants to hear about it.)

“What we need, and what we believe eButterfly will provide, is thousands of individuals collecting data on butterfly sightings all over the U.S. and Canada, for decades to come,” a release on the project quoted zoologist Katy Prudic of Oregon State University, who founded eButterfly USA. (Maxim Larrivée is her counterpart at the more established eButterfly Canada; the University of Ottawa originally got the process started.)

According to eButterfly’s About Us page:

Scientists already use eButterfly data to understand how butterflies respond and adapt to environmental changes, including climate change and the effects of human land use. The mission includes both a scientific and practical dimension. The practical mission is to contribute to conservation of North America's biodiversity through engagement and advice to policymakers.

It’s not all about taking a snapshot the global picture. Butterflies have some issues of their own, from attacks on habitats favored by Monarchs to species like Colorado’s Uncompahgre fritillary or El Segundo blue, which flies around LAX, that are officially endangered. More data (and more loving attention) can help in their recovery. Excepting a few “particularly sensitive” species whose whereabouts are kept under wraps, the crowd-sourced results are plotted on a dynamic map.

For the duffers out there, the system's drop-down menus help enthusiastic novices to learn what species they’ve spotted while telling the experts when and where those butterflies were active. Beyond the electronic labor of logging what you observe, there’s no cost to participate, although like any avocation these days you can always gear up with fancy binoculars and GPS locaters. The organizers, which also include institutions like the Montreal Space for Life, the University of Alberta, and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, actively encourage getting children involved.

eButterfly is part of a wave of citizen science projects, including a few we’ve talked about here, such as the ZomBee initiative that looks for ailing honeybees, the National Phenology Network that tracks the advancing onset of spring, or smartphone apps that help land managers track down invasive species. And it’s not all an artifact of the Internet age, as Enrique Gili reminded us in 2010:

Phenology has long drawn citizen scientists. The poet Henry David Thoreau cribbed extensive notes on the plants of his native New England, taking meticulous records on bud bursts, range, and the appearance of 600 native species.

Which reminds me: If you’ve got your own Thoreau-ly fascinating historical data on butterflies (or perhaps other species soon), eButterfly would like that, too.