Catching Butterflies for Fun (and Science)

A Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae) Photo by Frederick Gralenski
A Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae) Photo by Frederick Gralenski

Does spring fever give you the urge to frolic in fields and chase butterflies? If so, grab a net and go for it. If anyone gives you a funny look, tell them you are doing important scientific research.

Scientists with the Pieris Project are asking people all over the world to collect cabbage white butterflies. This small, delicate-looking butterfly is one of the world’s most successful invaders. The cabbage white originated in Europe, but has spread to most continents and adapted to a wide variety of environments. Scientists want learn how this world traveler and agricultural pest pulled it off. To figure it out, they are enlisting the help of citizen scientists armed with butterfly nets.

The cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) is small, only 1 to 2 inches in wingspan. It is mostly white, with a dark gray tip and one or two spots on its front wings. The rear wings can be white, grayish-white or pale yellow. The cabbage white is one of the most common butterflies in North America. In fact, in the course of writing this I have seen at least 3 of them flutter through my backyard.

As a caterpillar, this butterfly feeds on plants in the mustard family, which includes many popular vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts. Scientists believe this insect was accidentally introduced to the East Coast around 1860 when it stowed away in some cabbages brought from home by European immigrants. Then it hitched a ride on the railroad, hiding in vegetable cargo, and in about 40 years it had spread all over North America.

Scientists with the Pieris Project are asking citizen scientists to catch these butterflies and send them to their lab at the University of Notre Dame. There, researchers will analyze the butterflies’ DNA to learn more about the genes that allow it to invade new environments. They will also study how the butterfly has changed as it spread across the globe.

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So far, citizen scientists have sent in butterflies from 25 states and ten different countries. Even Mesa County has contributed a sample! Josh Jahner, a Colorado Mesa University alumnus who is now studying entomology at the University of Nevada, Reno, collected a few cabbage whites in Orchard Mesa last summer when he drove through the Grand Valley.

But Sean Ryan, founder of the Pieris Project, says that they are hoping to increase participation this year and that more samples from Mesa County and Colorado are welcome. Ryan is Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame and very enthusiastic about getting citizens, young and old, involved in science. He and his team are even developing teaching modules so that teachers can incorporate the Pieris Project into their science curriculum.

Sadly, participating in this science project does involve killing some butterflies. Because they are agricultural pests, cabbage whites need to be dead before you ship them across state lines. You can kill them humanely by placing them in a container in your freezer overnight. But don’t be too sad- these butterflies are abundant and have short life spans even if they don’t participate in this project. And a cabbage white in the net may mean healthier broccoli plants in your garden this summer.

To get all the details on the Pieris Project, as well as everything you need to know about identifying, catching and shipping cabbage white butterflies, please visit their website: http://www.pierisproject.org. Then grab your net and get ready to chase some cabbage whites!

This article originally appeared in edited for in the April 19 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel http://www.gjsentinel.com/outdoors/articles/chasing-butterflies/

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Catching Butterflies for Fun (and Science)

Introducing a new journal – Citizen Science: Theory and Practice

Citizen scientists conduct a mountain goat survey in Glacier N.P.
Citizen scientists conduct a mountain goat survey in Glacier N.P.

Great news!  The Citizen Science Association is launching a new journal AND it’s open access- meaning you don’t have to have a subscription or access to an academic library to read it.  Way to include the citizens!  The journal will focus on the practice of citizen science, rather than the scientific results of citizen science projects.  Those results should be published in the relevant academic journals just like traditionally sourced data.  Citizen Science: Theory and Practice will “share best practices in conceiving, developing, implementing, evaluating, and sustaining projects that facilitate public participation in scientific endeavors in any discipline.”  The journal will include research papers, review and synthesis papers, case studies as well as essays. You can read the all the details on the journal’s website here: http://theoryandpractice.citizenscienceassociation.org/about/editorialPolicies#focusAndScope  And don’t forget that inaugural membership in the Citizen Science Association (http://citizenscienceassociation.org/) is still free. So go join!

Introducing a new journal – Citizen Science: Theory and Practice

Citizen science data at work: Sorting out the natural and human factors driving the U.S. distribution of the exotic Monk Parakeet.

monk parakeets

Did you participate in a Christmas Bird Count this year? If so, you should be proud to be a part of the longest running citizen science project in the world. Data from this project has been used in over 200 scientific studies and featured prominently in 57 studies on biodiversity according to Elinore Theobald of the University of Washington and lead author of the study “Global Change and local solutions: Tapping the unrealized potential of citizen science for biodiversity research.” One of the more recent studies examined the distribution of the exotic Monk Parakeet in the United States. The Monk Parakeet is a native of South America and popular pet species that has established feral populations in many areas of the U.S. and Europe. In this study, Amélie Davis and co-authors use data from the Christmas Bird Count as well as Project Feeder Watch, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and the eBird Program to demonstrate that natural factors such as climate and forest cover determine Monk Parakeet distribution in the South, but in the northern U.S., parakeet distribution was correlated with human factors such as housing density and distance to nearest large city. You can read the full text of the open access article here: Substitutable habitats? The biophysical and anthropogenic drivers of an exotic bird’s distribution.

Citizen science data at work: Sorting out the natural and human factors driving the U.S. distribution of the exotic Monk Parakeet.

The huge value (and under-appreciated potential) of the citizen scientist

water test

The world is changing rapidly, in large part due to the growth of the human population. Other species are going extinct or invading new continents and habitats at such speed that it is difficult for scientists to keep pace. But could that same human population be harnessed to better understand these changes? In a new, open source paper in the journal Biological Conservation, E.J. Theobald and colleagues ask whether citizen science projects addressing biodiversity provide data that is currently used, or has potential for use, in mainstream biodiversity research.

The paper, “Global change and local solutions: Tapping the unrealized potential of citizen science for biodiversity research,” (which you can read by clicking on the link) addresses three main questions:

  1. What kind of biodiversity data does citizen science currently provide and what is it worth?
  1. How much of this data gets published in peer-reviewed journals and what makes it more likely to get published?
  1. What is the potential for citizen science to contribute to biodiversity research?

By scouring the Internet and interviewing citizen science project managers and biodiversity scientists, the authors compiled a database of citizen science projects in the field of biodiversity. They found that these projects run the taxonomic gamut from birds to bacteria and range in scale from continent-wide to just 10 km. When they tallied up the volunteer-hours of the 1.36-2.28 million people that participate annually in citizen science, they found that work is worth $667 million – $2.5 billion annually. That is equivalent to roughly 11-42% of the U.S. National Science Foundation budget!

That’s great, but is the data that all these hard working volunteers collect being used effectively? Does it make it into the peer-reviewed literature and why should that matter? Citizen science fulfills many other purposes besides collecting data- education, experiential learning and basic monitoring. But biodiversity research is data thirsty and requires data on the time, and geographic, scales for which citizen science is uniquely suited. When this data is analyzed for research published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, the ideas and insights it generates are vetted by other experts and become available to the scientific community. The authors found that data from only 12% of the citizen science projects in their database were used in peer-reviewed studies. Data from projects that covered large spatial scales or long time frames (i.e. decades) were more likely to be used in peer-reviewed research, as was data collected by citizen scientists trained in species identification. Projects that made their data easily available to scientists, for instance on their website, were also more likely to be included in published research. The authors acknowledge that 12% is a conservative estimate of the data that gets used. Some data from citizen science projects may be used in peer-reviewed studies without being explicitly acknowledged (shame on the scientists.) Other data may be used in non-peer reviewed reports, which are useful, but not held to the same standard as peer-reviewed studies, and are not as accessible to scientists.

There is increasing interest and participation in citizen science and much of this interest aligns with the types of research biodiversity scientists want to do. Though citizen scientists typically collect data locally, there are lots of them and they may be spread out over large scales. This allows citizen scientists to collect data at spatial and time scales it may not be feasible for professional scientists to accomplish alone. But there is a disconnect between the citizen science and the mainstream science worlds. Biodiversity scientists need to become more aware of the data resources citizen science provides. Citizen science projects should to be designed with the needs of biodiversity research in mind, i.e. large spatial scales and long time frames are advantageous. Organizations such as the Citizen Science Association (http://citizenscienceassociation.org/) may be critical to integrating these two worlds. If you are interested in citizen science, go join this organization now- inaugural membership is free!

This study’s assessment of citizen science in biodiversity research makes it clear that the value and potential of citizen science is huge but underappreciated- primarily due to a lack of communication. We need to change that. Get outside, get data and get communicating!

The huge value (and under-appreciated potential) of the citizen scientist

Got Kids? Get Ladybugs.

 

Photo from pdphoto.org
Photo from pdphoto.org

If your kids are anything like mine, they LOVE to catch insects.  A bug jar accompanies us on most walks and we know which spots on our usual routes are rollie-pollie jackpots. (Yes, I know rollie-pollies are not insects but bear with me.)  Then again, my children just spent 45 minutes playing with their pet earthworms at the breakfast table so they may be outliers.

 

Nevertheless, I am willing to bet that your kids love ladybugs.  How could they not?  Ladybugs are so dang cute, friendly and not slimy. But North America’s native ladybug species are in decline, possibly due to competition with other ladybug species introduced from Asia, and/or the ladybug diseases carried by the introduced species. (You can read more about that in this article, “Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home” on my blog, picahudsonia.com.)

 

But your kids, with a little assistance from you, can help researchers at Cornell University find native ladybugs species that are becoming increasingly rare, as well as monitor changes in the species composition of ladybug populations.  The program is called the Lost Ladybug Project and it’s super simple and fun.  You just catch ladybugs, photograph them, and upload the photos at the project website along with a little info about where and when you found the ladybug. Plus you may get to perform a cool little “magic” trick for your kids.  Normally, ladybugs crawl or fly pretty fast making good, close-up photography frustrating.  But, if you put them in a container in your fridge for a short period of time, they get chilled, slow down and are amenable to a brief modeling session.  Once they warm up they will take off unharmed.  Here’s the link to the project website again where you can find detailed instructions:  http://www.lostladybug.org/.

 

Through the Lost Ladybug Project, kids have already great contributions to the conservation of native ladybugs. Six-year-old Alyson Yates and her mother located a concentration of rare native lady bug species in Oregon, and a few individuals from their find were used to start breeding colonies of the native nine-spotted ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata.) And while the Lost Ladybug Project is ideal for kids because of its simplicity, they shouldn’t have all the fun.  Whether you are a gardener who is interested in beneficial insects or a photographer with a new macro lens you want to play with, this project is a quick, easy way for you to make a contribution as a citizen scientist.  So grab your camera, head out into your backyard and see what you can find!

Got Kids? Get Ladybugs.

Smart Phones for Science: Helping Track Hummingbirds and the Effects of Climate Change

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selaphorus platycercus) photo by Kati Fleming
Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selaphorus platycercus) photo by Kati Fleming

Admit it.  You spend too much time messing around on that addictive little toy – your smart phone. Now you can use your phone to do something more productive than checking Facebook or playing Angry Birds. The good folks at Audubon have created a new citizen science project that lets you use your device to collect data that is vital for the conservation of hummingbirds.

 

Hummingbirds are nature’s little dynamos.  Weighing tiny fractions of an ounce they beat their wings up to 80 times per second allowing them to hover, fly backwards and travel great distances – some species migrate thousands of miles.  All of this zipping about requires frequent refueling with hummingbird’s rocket fuel of choice – nectar.  Hummingbirds’ metabolism is so fast that if they miss a feeding by just a few hours they can die.  The tiny birds must time their migrations carefully.  Arriving in the North before nectar-bearing flowers are blooming, and food is available, could prove fatal.  It is believed that hummingbirds use photo-period or day-length cues to time their migration.  When the days get longer in the spring, they know that northern flowers should be blooming and it is time to start heading to the breeding grounds.

 

But climate change threatens to “un-sync” the correlation between day-length and the blooming of nectar producing flowers. For instance, warmer temperatures could cause nectar-bearing plants to bloom early.  By the time the hummingbirds (who have scheduled their travel based on day-length) arrive, the flowers may have gone to seed leaving the birds hungry.  Audubon’s “Hummingbirds at Home” project aims to collect data on the timing of hummingbird arrival and the blooming of nectar-bearing flowers all over North America.  Not too long ago, you would need several tools to collect to this kind of survey: a GPS device, a timer and some way to record your data.  But these days many of us are carrying all of those tools around in our pocket everyday in the form of a smart phone.  Throw in a pair of binoculars and you are good to go.  Audubon has even created a nifty app for iPhones and Android phones that makes it easy to do your survey with the correct protocol.  Or, if you are a smart phone ascetic, you can enter your data on a computer. Plus, you can view everyone else’s data on a cool Google map.  Check out the program and download the app here:  http://www.hummingbirdsathome.org/

 

Here in Western Colorado the flowers are JUST starting to bloom, and I have my hummingbird feeder out.  I am planning on doing my first hummingbird survey tomorrow.  After all, the absence of nectar-bearling flowers or hummingbirds is an important data point too.  If anyone else out there is participating in this project I would love to hear about your experiences with it.  Now get outside and get some data!

Smart Phones for Science: Helping Track Hummingbirds and the Effects of Climate Change

Have you spotted this bat?

The Spotted Bat sports some outlandish ears.  Photo by Dan Neubaum

The Spotted Bat sports some outlandish ears. Photo by Dan Neubaum

High above the canyons of the Colorado National Monument flies one of the state’s most elusive creatures.  A winged crusader in bold costume, he patrols the Grand Valley, pursuing the insect hordes that threaten to overrun us.  Concealing himself on high cliffs during the day and emerging only in darkness, little is known about this large-eared hunter and scientists are eager to learn more.  They want to know- have you spotted this bat?

 

The Spotted bat may be Colorado’s most unusual looking mammal.  It is one of Colorado’s larger bats, about four and a half inches from nose to tail with a wingspan of about 14 inches, but is distinguished by its outrageously long ears and bold coloration.  The fur on the bat’s body is black with three large white spots that suggest two eyes and a mouth. Biologists speculate that these markings may function to scare off predators, as do the eyespots on butterfly wings.  Very little is known about the Spotted bat because it is difficult to catch.  It roosts in crevices on high cliff faces and it tends to fly above the reach of bat biologist’s nets when hunting for insects.  It was not observed in Colorado until 1982 and until recently had only been seen at Dinosaur National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park.  Biologists at Colorado Parks and Wildlife suspected that the Spotted bat also occured in our area because the cliffs in the Monument are similar to the habitats where it was found in Mesa Verde- but they had no proof.  Then, in 2011, a resident in Mack brought in a dead bat, likely killed by a housecat, that he had found on his property.  Biologist Dan Neubaum was very excited.  Not only was it a Spotted bat- it was a lactating female, which meant that the bats were breeding in the area.

 

Oddly enough you are more likely to hear Spotted bats than see them.  Many bats emit high-pitched sounds that bounce off objects in their environment and return to the bats ears as echoes.  Bats use these echoes to locate objects, like insects, and “see” in the dark- this is called echolocation. Most echolocation calls are so high-pitched that human ears cannot hear them.  But two bat species in our area have calls that are low enough in pitch that they are audible to humans, at least those of us with good hearing. If you are down by the Colorado River at nightfall and you think you are hearing bats, do not be alarmed.  You aren’t turning into batman or a vampire- you are hearing either a Spotted bat or a Big Free-tailed bat. Their calls are difficult to tell apart unless you have a highly trained ear, but will sound like two small metal balls being repeatedly struck together.  The sound will be moving as the bat flies around rather than stationary like most insect sounds.

 

CPW biologists are hoping to do a survey of the Colorado National Monument soon to get a better picture of the bat species that are present there.  In the meantime, Neubaum says they’d love to hear from the public if they have seen a Spotted bat or have any information about bat roosting sites in the area.  You can contact him via e-mail at daniel.neubaum@state.co.us or at 255-6192.  If you find a bat on the ground, please do not handle it- bats can carry diseases such as rabies.  Transmission of rabies from bats to humans is very rare, but may occur when a bat is improperly handled.  Overall bats do us much more good than harm- bats consume not only mosquitos, but are also one of the most important predators of insect pests that attack crops.  We are lucky to have bats and we are especially lucky to have the Spotted bat. Try and spot one!

The markings on the back of the Spotted Bat may scare off predators by mimicking eyes and an mouth.  Photo by Dan Neubaum
The markings on the back of the Spotted Bat may scare off predators by mimicking eyes and an mouth. Photo by Dan Neubaum

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel on September 10, 2013.  Shortly after it was published, a reader contacted biologist Dan Neubaum to report a reliable sighting (with photographic evidence) of a Spotted Bat near Grand Junction-  the second record of the species for Mesa County.  Hooray for citizen science!

Have you spotted this bat?