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.

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.

Our Daily Moth: Celebrate National Moth Week with Mothing

By Ian Vorster July 10th, 2014 at 11:18 pm | Comment

Celebrate National Moth Week by photographing moths to help scientists predict and manage moth populations.

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

John Pickering, aka Pick, photographing moths.

Dr. John Pickering (aka Pick) photographs a moth at his home.

In 1991 John Pickering (everyone calls him Pick) switched from doing agriculture and health work to the one thing that had been his original motivation for pursuing a PhD in Biology at Harvard University—biodiversity. Born in the UK, he grew up in the English countryside, and was drawn to nature. By the age of six, he had built an insect zoo for wooly bears and ballbugs, and a few years later he had been converted to the collectors’ “culture of death”: catch it, kill it, pin it, put it in a museum. Before long he was running Malaise insect traps from Canada to Panama, which is an efficient way of filling collection cabinets and freezers full of dead insects. The first step in this process was to throw away the by-catch—moths. Little did John know that his love for nature would ultimately lead him to develop something as unusual as the Moth Party.

Natural Experiments
“I got really interested in these Malaise traps,” says Pick. “We had them in Maryland, Tennesse, North Carolina, and Georgia amongst others, and at the time we published a paper about something called the natural experiment.” A natural experiment has multiple sites, and if some sites get a rainstorm and other sites don’t, scientists can use that to tease out what they are monitoring. Understanding the potential of large-scale impacts, such as a polar vortex or climate change, on biological systems is not easily accomplished. It’s just not pragmatic to perform random experiments at the state or national level, and then also replicate them to either confirm or remove certain influences. Scientists will often perform what they call ‘pseudo-replication’ to take care of this. Mothing, in contrast uses natural field experiments—taking advantage of droughts or urban heat islands for example, to study such occurrences. And it’s very simple.

A moth party at Dr. Pickering's home.

A moth party at Dr. Pickering’s home.

Pick says, “We photograph moths at lights before dawn every night—I have been doing this with only one interruption, when I suffered a heart attack I was out for four days—to identify species, document how communities change seasonally, and what happens over, say a twenty year period in response to changes in weather patterns, land-use, air quality, and other variables.” When three polar vortexes came through last winter for example, two-thirds of the moth population was destroyed. If the team had enough sites they could have confirmed if it was the vortex that killed the moths—only the sites affected by the weather would have demonstrated the same level of deaths.

Mothing participants can rapidly collect and share phenomenal quantities of high-quality data from numerous study sites with modern digital photography and online tools.  A regular camera or DSLR is more suitable than a cellphone, although you will be able to photograph what Pick calls macro moths, or the big moths, with a phone camera. By collectively monitoring moth communities, this magic ‘Moth Team’ can take advantage of natural experiments to better understand, predict and manage moth populations and their interactions with other species.

Data in Exchange for Education

Moth statistics.

Moth statistics.

Mothing has a long list of scientific goals on their website but Nancy Lowe, the outreach coordinator for Discover Life (the parent organization for Mothing) says, “I am as excited about our education and outreach opportunities as I am about our research results. Mothing’s educational objective is to involve the public in all aspects of the project from hypothesis generation, data collection, identification, analysis, and presentation of results.” Pick says, “You give us data, and we’ll give you an education!” As the next step, Pick, Nancy and the team are currently developing Moth Math to teach students how to analyze real-time moth data. That will lump math, science, natural history and more into one exciting project. In partnership with the Moth Photographers Group that provided 40,000 diagnostic photographs, Discover Life now provides online identification guides to 12,000 moth species customized by U.S. state or by Canadian province or territory. Pick says they hope to work this down to the county level. Together the team has close to 400,000 photographs in their database.

“Moths are exciting,” says Nancy. “They are charismatic creatures, highly diverse, economically important as herbivores in larval stage, as pollinators in adult stage, and as important source of food for migratory songbirds in all stages. Anyone can set up a mothing site without having to travel through a tick-infested field site, they don’t bite, and they come to you!” Their identification using photos is fairly easy, with the exception of a few species. In short, they are a great way to teach natural history and share science with the public.

There is a staggering amount of diversity within the moth family. “The excitement and wonder of the diversity of moths across our study sites is enormous,” says Pick. “At my house we’ve now photographed over 1,100 moth species and counting [1]. This is more species than birds ever recorded in North America!” Most folks, even in urban areas, should expect at least a couple of hundred species to come to their porch lights.

To highlight the importance of moths, National Moth Week was created to engage citizen scientists. This includes summer mothing parties, gardens especially designed to attract moths, and even an effort to light up a white wall at every nature center in the country. Mothing is now encouraging everyone including natural history museums and Audubon chapters to sign up their location as a study site.

[1] Data for moth species

The Night Stalkers slideshow (Audubon Magazine)
Nancy Lowe,

Image Credits:
Top center: Rainey Gregg
Right: Tori Staples
Bottom left: John Pickering

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at

Categories: Citizen Science