“eButterfly” Can Change a Summer Hobby into a Scientific Venture

Build a virtual butterfly collection
Fender's blue butterfly

Fender’s blue butterfly is an endangered subspecies found only in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. It depends on a particular plant species, Kincaid’s lupine, most of which has been lost to agriculture and urbanization.

With the arrival of sunny summer days and creation of a new “citizen science” project called eButterfly, every 7-year-old child in the United States and Canada just gained the ability to become a working scientist. This project, which is now online at e-butterfly.org, is one of the first of its type, and will allow everyone from children to senior citizens to record the butterflies they see or collect, build a virtual butterfly collection, share their sightings with others, and contribute to a scientific record of global change.

It’s free, and all you need to get started are a sharp eye, an interest in nature and a computer. “We expect global changes in climate and other forces to have serious impacts on butterfly populations around the world,” says Katy Prudic, a research scientist at Oregon State University and founder and director of this project in the U.S. “There are estimates of general declines over 30 percent and localized extinctions.”

Butterflies, an important part of many ecosystems, are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature, population growth, urban sprawl, changes in land and water use, and many other forces, Prudic says. Experts have the ability with powerful computers to interpret these changes and better understand how they are affecting biodiversity – but they don’t have the manpower to gather all the data.

“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,” Prudic says. “This will be a wonderful opportunity for people to get involved in science, appreciate nature and our changing world, and interact with and enjoy biodiversity.”

Because the project taps into the natural interests of children, both rural and urban, who have been chasing butterflies and making collections for centuries, it also offers an entry into the world of science at a very young age, organizers say. Their contributions will be just as valuable as those of an adult hobbyist or working professional, and in the process they can learn about ecology, botany, entomology, geography, computers, data management, global change issues, and other science disciplines.

Slight changes in temperature and other climate factors, experts say, cause changes in butterfly development, migration, eating habits, and other behavior. Butterflies are also a good indicator of the availability of certain plants on which various species depend. And changes are inevitable. “With the amount of global warming expected in the next 20 years, almost all butterfly species will move somewhat, in location or elevation,” Prudic said. “There may be winners and losers as these changes take place, and some species will struggle more than others. With the data we gather from this project we can monitor those changes and understand the impact on biodiversity.”

The new web site offers a tutorial in how to use it, and simple features such as a map that you can zoom in on, to provide exact latitude and longitudes of butterfly sightings. Experts will review entries for accuracy, and people will be encouraged to take digital photos to help verify their sightings. Data from new sightings will be combined in this project with historical information from a century of museum collections, organizers say, to provide some historic perspective almost immediately.

This project is being developed in collaboration with the Montreal Space for Life, the University of Ottawa, the University of Alberta, and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. A system for recording butterfly sightings in Mexico is not yet available, organizers said.

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