Citizen scientists asked to count Australia’s butterflies through new app

By Angela Heathcote October 18, 2019
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Without sufficient data, scientists can’t identify population collapses or list insects under national species protection legislation, but a new citizen science project based on butterflies may help.

IN 2012, scientist Chris Sanderson was holidaying in Darwin when he came across an obscure looking butterfly.

Despite being an ornithologist by profession, Chris was familiar with several Australian field guides to butterflies, particularly those written and revised by well-known lepidopterist Michael Braby.

The butterfly, bright orange in colour, was a species Chris certainly didn’t remember from the field guides.

Chris contacted Michael, who, coincidentally, was also in Darwin, including in the email the images he had photographed. “He thought it was a hoax,” Chris recalls.

The tawny coster (Acraea terpsicore) was previously only known to live in parts of Sri Lanka and India.

Just two weeks after Chris had first sent him the photo of the tawny coster, Michael spotted one as well. “They really are here,” Michael phoned Chris.

Over time, amateur photographers had been uploading significantly more photographs of the tawny coster. Two years prior to Chris’s discovery, several images had begun emerging out of Indo-China and Indonesia, far further south then they’d been seen before.

And now, Chris and Michael had photographed the butterfly in northern Australia. Through a Google image search, they’d been able to track the southward movement of the tawny coster, from Thailand all the way to Australia.

“What if,” Chris thought to himself, “we had a way to easily capture this kind of data on Australian butterflies in one central database.”

Butterflies Australia

Chris’s discovery of the tawny coster threw him into the world of Lepidoptera. Then, one night over drinks, a fellow researcher and bird fanatic based in Western Australia, Megan Barnes, said, “let’s create an eBird platform but for butterflies.”

EBird, created by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, allows its users – who fit the definition of citizen scientists – to explore the bird world and hotspots close to their area, and log and tally sightings.

“Birds have been wildly successful in terms of citizen science. Platforms like eBird got people out there birdwatching and collecting data,” Chris says.

“We wanted to learn from that experience and apply it to somewhere that desperately needs attention, like invertebrates.”

Coinciding with Megan’s idea of an eBird platform for butterflies, in 2015, the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science announced a special round for citizen science grants.

Chris was one of eight people who were awarded grants, along with the much-loved FrogID app that since its launch has been downloaded 70,000 times and has more than 18,000 users.

Butterflies Australia, four years in the making, will launch on the 24 October, and just like FrogID, heralds a revolution in the way people identify and record their observations in the Australian environment.

Early on, Michael Braby signed on as the chief investigator for the project, and the app and the website draw heavily on his field guides to Australian butterflies.

“It’s been a slow journey to put together the information and fine-tune the data collection tool. There’s a lot about this app that hasn’t really been done before,” Chris says.

“We struggled to find an app that does invertebrates, that includes both the collection of data and a field guide. There are very few field guides in app form anyway and there are almost none that cover invertebrates.

“Hopefully the app has the ability to get Australians excited by butterflies.”

Butterflies and the ‘Insectageddon’

In early 2019, reports of what was dubbed an ‘insectageddon’ in the Northern Hemisphere emerged, and while there are several examples of insect decline in Australia – Christmas beetles and bogong moths – the data wasn’t comprehensive enough to make the same case here in Australia.

This data deficit, Chris hopes, can be assisted by apps like Butterflies Australia, but he says there needs to be more investment in collecting data beyond the new app.

And he has big plans for what can be done with the data once it has been collected.

Chris takes issue with the way animals are currently listed as threatened species in Australia, identifying a bias towards vertebrates.

“For something to be called critically endangered you need less than 500 individuals, but that’s just never going to happen for a butterfly,” he says.

“If there were less than 500 butterflies it would already be functionally extinct.

“For a mammal it makes sense, and similarly for birds. There are birds that have been brought back from far fewer than 500 individuals. But with butterflies it’s not something that makes sense.”

A species could also be considered threatened based on range restrictions or by way of proof there is a population decline, which Chris explains is hard to do without sufficient data.

“Officially listing a threatened species is a form of legislation and the government has to be able to ensure that it’s going to hold up in court if someone is told they couldn’t build a mine because of a particular butterfly.

“If we can start understanding where these species occur and if there are any measurable declines then we can actually start talking about whether there are some species that need conservation.”

The Federal Government is currently working towards a ‘Common Assessment Method’ that they hope will be more consistent, efficient and harmonised than the previous method, which saw Federal and State governments putting animals in different categories.

An intergovernmental working group was established to create the assessment method after Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and the Australian Government all signed onto the memorandum of understanding.

While this is good news for conservationists, Chris is wary of the vertebrate bias creeping through once again.

“The common assessment method will mean that the criteria apply everywhere and we need to get them right for species who haven’t received a lot of interest in terms of conservation.

“A person who’s interested in plants or fungi would give you the same answer.”

Michael agrees that the population requirement for listing species is “useless” when it comes to insects; however, he says that the bigger issue is the small number of entomologists in Australia.

“When you compare the number of entomologists in Australia to the number of people studying birds or mammals, it’s dismal.

“There are far more people out in the field recording the population of vertebrates then there are people recording the population of invertebrates, which explains why the threatened species list may be skewed toward the fluffy, cute things, rather than any issues with the criteria itself.”

Michael hopes the app goes some way in changing people’s perceptions of insects and the negative attitudes that he believes are developed from an early age.

Follow Butterflies Australia on Twitter for updates.