Waiting for a butterfly to flutter by with the Los Angeles Butterfly Survey

By Melinda T. Hough July 20th, 2014 at 11:01 am | Comment

Live in Los Angeles county? Photograph butterflies and moths, and help scientists study climate change.

Interested in more moth and butterfly citizen science projects?  We’ve got you covered!

Hyalophora_cecropia-Maro

Hyalophora cecropia [1]

Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway, and today, I saw one…” [2]

In the heat of summer monsoons, butterflies accompany the paddling turtles in the lake outside my window… butterfly? Wait a minute; I remember dragonflies, not butterflies, from childhood. Nightly news reports every evening that our fragile blue marble is undergoing significant changes. Could butterflies and moths help scientists understand how living organisms adapt to climate change?

More than 174,000 species of butterflies and moths, the Lepidoptera, or scaly-winged insects, have been cataloged, making them some of the most successful insects to flutter across our planet. Vital to local ecosystems, butterflies and moths are important food sources and pollinators, only differing in their coloration (bold colors vs. drab monochrome) and diurnal/nocturnal range. Yet, only 236 species of butterfly have been observed in Los Angeles County.

Citizen scientists monitoring monarchs on milkweek in Los Angeles. [3]

Citizen scientists monitoring monarchs on milkweek in Los Angeles. [3]

The Los Angeles Butterfly Survey, a partnership between the all-volunteer Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is working with citizen scientists to count and photographically catalogue the butterflies, and moths, found between the urban skyscrapers of southern California.

Becoming a butterfly, or moth, hunter has never been easier. Citizen scientists simply photograph, noting the date, time, and location, of their winged sighting. The photo and observations are then uploaded to the BAMONA website, where experts identify/verify the species before adding the find to their database. The data is used to develop a visual database and life history page for each species including stunning, user-submitted, photographs and maps reflecting recent sightings.

Kelly Lotts, co-founder of BAMONA, notes, “It is very easy for kids to grab cameras and to take photographs of species found where they live or at their school… Kids really enjoy being able to point to their dot on the map, to their actual photograph.”

Hyalophora cecropia, normally found east of the Rocky Mountains, spotted in California.[4]

Hyalophora cecropia, normally found east of the Rocky Mountains, spotted in California.[4]

Since its launch in 2011, the Los Angeles Butterfly Survey has become an invaluable tool encouraging city dwellers to become scientists for the day. Over 628,000 butterfly and moth sightings have been recorded across all of North America; 1320 for southern California. Lotts goes on to explain, “We get a lot of data requests from scientists looking at butterflies as indicators of climate change… in 2011 and 2012, in California, there was a sighting of Hyalophora cecropia each year. This is very unusual as the Cecropia is found in the east of the Rocky Mountains.”

Citizen scientists benefit from their involvement as well. At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, they are mapping local species in order to inform planting in the pollinator garden. New projects are sprouting up including the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. According to Lila Higgins, Manager of Citizen Science for the museum, “Citizen scientist are already getting so much out of their experience. They are thinking like scientists – making predictions about what they are going to find in the coming weeks. Talk about science in action.”

Why not grab a camera and enjoy the summer sun while waiting for a butterfly to flutter by?

References and Resources:

[1] Image courtesy Tony Maro (BAMONA submission).
[2] Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail
[3] Image courtesy Wendy Caldwell (Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles).
[4] Data courtesy BAMONA website.


Dr Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator dedicated to sharing the inspiring stories of life science and helping the general public explore their world. She holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh for research into how antibiotics kill bacteria, was a policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, and is a published photographer. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science.  Not content to stay in one place for very long, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, plotting her next epic adventure, or training for the next half marathon.

UK’s Big Butterfly Count is on!

By Alex Reis July 19th, 2014 at 8:38 am | Comment

Count butterflies to find out about the state of nature.

Interested in butterfly citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!

Small White (Pieris rapae) butterfly feeding on a marigold flower.

Small White (Pieris rapae) butterfly feeding on a marigold flower.

From next Saturday 19 July until Sunday 10 August 2014, the Big Butterfly Count will take place in the UK. This citizen science project is organized by Butterfly Conservation UK and can boast being the largest butterfly count in the world.

The Big Butterfly Count was born in 2010, as Butterfly Conservation UK was keen to attract a wider audience of “butterfly newbies” to participate in one of their projects. For many years, this organization has been staging multiple projects to observe butterflies in the UK, but participation requires not only a deep knowledge of different butterfly species and understanding of their behavior, but also the commitment to go out and count butterflies on a regular basis.

As explained by Richard Fox, from Butterfly Conservation UK, the team felt the need to develop a project more suited to a one-off observation that could be done as a family or by schools, and didn’t assume any background knowledge about butterflies – in essence, a citizen science project! All participants have to do is go out on a sunny day to count and identify the butterflies they see during 15 minutes, then log their results online or via an app. The project focuses on 21 common species of butterflies and moths, and participants can download an easy to follow identification chart to help them work out the species they’ve spotted.

Since it started, the number of participants has been steadily increasing and over 46,000 people spotted 833,000 butterflies and moths in 2013, representing a four-fold increase compared to the previous year. Last year’s bright and sunny days meant considerably more butterflies were detected than in 2012, when bad weather had a strong negative impact on numbers. The “whites” (large white and small white butterflies) managed to dethrone the “browns” from being the most spotted types of butterflies, but the overall trend for virtually all species was up.

The fact that weather affects butterfly numbers is not surprising; many observations going back many years – not only through the Big Butterfly Count but through other projects as well – allows researchers to analyze tendencies and understand the impact of climate change on wildlife. Results showed that 2013, despite being considerably better than 2012, was merely an average year when compared to data from the 70s and 80s.  Butterflies in the UK have been on a downward path for the last 10 years, both in terms of abundance and distribution across the country.

To assess the long-term impact on butterfly and moth numbers, Butterfly Conservation UK is keen to continue with the Big Butterfly Count, to find out whether butterflies are able to go back to those record-breaking days or if, even with a good summer, numbers will never the same due to their changing habitat. The organization emphasizes the importance of assessing butterfly population, describing it as “taking the pulse of nature”. As these insects are able to respond very quickly to changes in the environment, even a small drop in numbers can be seen as an early warning sign for further biodiversity losses.

While working side-by-side with the general public, Fox found the experience very rewarding, receiving many positive comments from participants so far. Butterfly Conservation UK hopes this project can work as a stepping stone for some of the most dedicated participants, motivating them to progress to more detailed projects and become regular contributors.

So, if you happen to be in the UK during the counting period, why not go for a bit of butterfly spotting? You can do it sitting down in a park (just make sure you don’t count the same butterfly twice!) or going for a walk in the woods, whichever you prefer.

Looking for ways to count butterflies? Check out the SciStarter project finder.

Resources:
Big Butterfly Count 
Butterfly Conservation UK

Image: Zeynel Cebeci, Wikimedia Commons


Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.

Kestrels in the City

By Alex Reis July 17th, 2014 at 9:04 am | Comment

Common kestrel falco tinnunculus (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Common kestrel falco tinnunculus
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

With the help of the public, researchers from the University of Vienna, Austria, have found out that the Eurasian kestrel can be “seduced” by the city lights, but this decision comes at a cost, with lower reproductive success and a poorer diet.

Urbanization is a global event that is invading natural habitats, inevitably leading to a decrease in biodiversity. However, rather surprisingly, this is actually creating new habitats for some species. “Most city dwelling birds are exploiting human resources, like garbage dumps (for example gulls), feeders (granivore birds), or artificial nest sites/nest boxes for cavity breeders”, said Petra Sumasgutner, lead author in the study. “If a species can exploit the urban environment is therefore very much connected to what it needs in its natural habitat”.

In particular, the Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) is frequently associated with urban landscapes, and Vienna seems to be a popular destination for these birds. For years, Sumasgutner observed kestrels building their nests in small cavities, abundant in old historic buildings, and her scientific curiosity led to further questions about how this is affecting the species.

To find these much wanted answers, her team decided to investigate occupied nest sites in and around Vienna, along a gradient of urbanization from least covered to most covered by buildings. Since coverage of the entire city of Vienna looking for kestrels required many watchful eyes, researchers enlisted the help of volunteers to help them in this search over 3 years. “It was a lot of effort to work with the media and the general public, but it was also a lot of fun. Especially the collaboration with the chimney sweepers and the firefighters was the best”, said Sumasgutner.

It turned out that, although the availability of breeding cavities attracts many birds to highly urbanized areas, city life is not all that’s cracked up to be for kestrels. Birds nesting in the city were more likely to abandon the nest, resulting in lower hatching rates and smaller fledged broods than those breeding in the outskirts. The authors suggest this effect may be a consequence of a forced change in the bird’s diets while staying in the city, as their natural ability to hunt rodents on the ground needed to shift to find small birds instead.

At first, it may seem these city-dwelling raptors are exploiting the urban environment, but a closer look reveals what the authors called an “ecological trap”, with unexpected costs both in terms of reproductive success and prey availability. When asked about the future of kestrels in the city, Sumasgutner’s answer is clear: “not at all in the inner-city”. After observing how kestrels can also nest in purpose-built nest boxes, the author suggested using “the same mechanism which attracts kestrels to breed in highly urbanized areas to actually lure them in a more suitable habitat, like buildings around larger city parks or also the suburban area of Vienna”.

Maybe this could be their next citizen science project, again enrolling the help of the public to save the kestrel. After all, “I would work again in a citizen science project”, concluded Sumasgutner.

Interested in kestrel citizen science projects?  Monitor American kestrels with the American Kestrel Partnership or the Massachusetts Audubon American Kestrel Monitoring Project.


Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.

Exploring a Culture of Health: How Can We Visualize Health Data for Better Communication?

By Carolyn Graybeal July 16th, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Comment

vizhealth front image

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

There is a seemingly endless stream of health data. Visit the doctor and you get a report listing various bits of data such as your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Listen to the news and you hear statistics on risk factors, medication side effects or mortality rates. All potentially useful information, but without background or context, the numbers are likely confusing, meaningless and eventually forgotten. “For health data to be meaningful, the person needs to see themselves in that data. To make this happen, we need to understand how to present data so that it conveys a complete message, not just a number,” says Andrea Ducas, program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

A team of scientists from the University of Michigan team set out to solve this problem, creating Visualizing Health, with support from RWJF, to explore ways to visualize health data. When designed well, visuals can be powerful tools for conveying information. “What we lack is data on how best to present data,” says Thomas Goetz, former RWJF Entrepreneur-in-Residence and collaborator on Visualizing Health.

Read the rest of this entry »

Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: Does citizen science get lost in translation?

By Rae Moore July 14th, 2014 at 9:35 pm | Comment

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Every week, Caren Cooper’s Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop delves into relevant citizen science topics.  During a recent trip to Italy for a citizen science summer course, Caren discovered the challenges of communicating about citizen science.  While the definition itself is open to interpretation, the word “citizen science” is also not a universally-known term.  In the spirit of citizen science, Twitter was crowdsourced for translations, and nine different ways to say citizen science were summarized.

Caren ended the blog with the following question:

Do you know of the use of the term citizen science in other languages? In which languages does it translate? Where does it not translate?

You can share your responses in the comments section of her blog, or in the comments below.