Citizens needed to spot Australian butterflies

The funny thing about butterfly citizen science in Australia is that you might have contributed already – you just don’t know it.

It’s a story that starts in 2012, when ecologist Chris Sanderson, was visiting some friends near Darwin. He photographed a bright orange species that he couldn’t find in his butterfly bible – The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia. 

Intrigued, he emailed the picture to the guide’s author, Michael Braby, but heard nothing until “[Braby] found one himself and contacted me and said, ‘I think I just found your butterfly’.”

The distinctly spotted insect – a tawny coster, now established across Australia’s Top End – had been previously found only in Sri Lanka and India.

“We wondered, ‘What’s going on here? This is not an Australian butterfly – why are they here?’” says Sanderson. “It turned out that this butterfly had been moving through Asia by stealth and we were able to track its spread using photos from Google image searches.

“There was all this wealth of data there from photographs that people were taking anyway, and they were correctly identifying the butterfly even though it wasn’t known in their country. And no one in the professional lepidoptery world had written anything up about this – there were just these records sitting there on Google and we were able to track the spread and measure the rate of expansion of the species completely on an ad-hoc basis. So, we thought – what if you did this a little bit more formally?”

Thus were sown the seeds for the Butterflies Australia Project. Launched in November 2019, its centrepiece is an app that can run on a phone or a tablet. No special skills required – just a device with the app and a camera. Simply take a photo and log it into the app. 

Even if you’re not in mobile data range, the system will capture your location, and log the species when your phone connects. Part of the fun is to try to identify your spot using the field guide’s shortlist of local likelies, but you can also upload your picture as an unknown species.

For such an easy-to-spot and widespread group, butterfly data in Australia is surprisingly patchy. For many species, range maps are, Sanderson mourns, a “weird mix of expert elicitation and hand drawn based on gut feeling. It’s a situation where it’s best available and best available is way better than nothing. But if you don’t have any reliable information on range or population you fail on all categories to be able to list a creature [as a threatened species].” 

The Atlas of Living Australia is the central open data hub for Australia’s biodiversity. It has more than 87 million records, including 40 million sightings of birds – but just 250,000 for butterflies. Sanderson would like to double that, and has set the project an ambitious target of gaining 100,000 records by the end of 2020. 

“We want to get people all round Australia out looking at butterflies… at the places that are close to them – private properties, local parks, random parts of the map that people just happen to be at,” he says. 

“Citizen scientists have the enthusiasm and the ability to get to more places than we could ever reach in a structured way.”

Citizen observers have a lot to offer scientists, and Sanderson sees the relationship as one of give and take. “One of the things… in the app is a field guide so people have a reference guide in their pocket,” he says earnestly. 

“But we also want to teach people how to identify butterflies, how to do a survey, how to take a photo. The data will be vital for us, and hopefully enrich people’s experience of nature.”

Every record will add lepidoptera data that’s desperately needed – knowledge about a species’ range, habitat, habit and population. Some butterflies have a codependent relationship with other species, such as ants, so these behaviours might also be revealed or expanded. 

And then there’s the chance of butterfly El Dorado. “I’d love somebody in this project to find a new species – I think it’s possible,” says Sanderson. 

This is an edited version of a story in the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, which will follow the project in future issues. To subscribe to Cosmos click here.

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