Researchers Need Help Photographing Butterflies

Calling all citizen scientists for a global butterfly census.

Blue butterfly papilio zalmoxis on orchid
Giant blue swallowtail butterfly on orchid. Darrell Gulin / Getty Images

See that butterfly flitting in your garden? Snap a photo and join a new citizen scientist project.

The Global Butterfly Census is asking for help to track butterflies in their natural habitat around the world. 

The project was launched by Friend of the Earth, a program from the Italian-based World Sustainability Organization. The group works to conserve ecosystems and protect endangered species by promoting sustainable agriculture and farming practices. 

Friend of the Earth began working to protect butterflies a few years ago. The group focused first on Italy which, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has the largest number of butterfly varieties in Europe—about 60% of all species.

“Unfortunately, 4% of those species are at risk of extinction due to intensive agricultural practices that threaten their natural habitats and to the consequences of climate change,” Paolo Bray, director of Friend of the Earth, tells Treehugger.

They found that the same situation was happening globally, so the group launched the census in January.

“Encouraging people to participate is also a way to raise awareness about the delicate situation of butterflies. We should not take these beautiful insects for granted,” Bray says.

“We aim to create a first statistical study within a year and share the collected data with existing scientific databases that map the distribution and quantity of butterflies in the world. The idea is to contribute to broadening our knowledge of butterflies.”

How to Take Part

To participate, people are asked to snap a photo, making sure not to disturb the butterfly, and send it in via WhatsApp (+39 351 2522520) along with the location coordinates.

Someone from Friend of the Earth will reply with the species’ name. The information will be filed on an interactive map on the group’s website and entered into a database.

“We can extract valuable information and transform it into qualitative and quantitative scientific data thanks to a simple snapshot,” Bray says.

So far, the group has received more than 1,000 snapshots of butterflies and moths from 20 countries. Most have come from Italy, Colombia, and Ecuador, but they’ve also received submissions from places like the United States, Japan, and Turkey.

“However, a 10-month photo collection is not enough to extract conclusions. Our work is only beginning,” Bray says.

“For now, we’ve been able to get an overview of around 13 butterfly species and five species of moths. They are classified as in severe decline by the scientific community around the world, and six species are part of the European Habitat Directive plan— close to being endangered.”  

Why Butterflies Matter

There are about 18,000 species of butterflies and around 160,000 species of moth in the world, according to the IUCN.

“Because of this fantastic biodiversity, we still have a lot to learn about the different species. Historically, we have focused on the most popular ones, such as the Monarch butterfly, neglecting others that remain less known,” Bray says. 

“Think about the species that are more frequently pictured in documentaries. Usually, large animals tend to attract more of our attention. However, these tiny insects that sometimes escape sight have a huge ecological importance in environmental dynamics.”

Butterflies are often considered to be bioindicators of environmental health. Because they are so fragile, they are vulnerable to even small changes in the ecosystem, making them good alarms about change.

“Butterflies are important pollinating insects, which through the process of pollination from one flower to another, allow the birth of new floral generations. They’re the prey of multiple animals, including reptiles, amphibians, and monkeys, playing a vital role in the food chain,” Bray says.

“For all these reasons, we need to protect them, and to do so, we need to learn more about their status.”

Photographing Butterflies

If you see a butterfly and want to participate in the count, be careful so you don’t disturb the insect.

“You should not try to touch the butterfly as one could risk damaging the wings,” Bray says. “Also, refrain from using the camera flash. In the case of nocturnal moths, it’s preferable to use lanterns or the halo of torches.”

And don’t sit around waiting for a butterfly to come to you.

“The advice for a good butterfly sighting is not to be on the lookout. Butterflies are always on the move in seasons such as spring, summer, and even autumn, so you have to walk to find them!” Bray says. “Groves, uncultivated meadows, city parks with spontaneous blooms, wetlands are very popular areas and offer the possibility of incredible sightings.”

View Article Sources
  1. Paolo Bray, director of Friend of the Earth

  2. "Italy's Biodiversity At Risk." International Union for Conservation of Nature.

  3. "Save the Butterflies." Friend of the Earth.

  4. "Butterfly and Moth." International Union for Conservation of Nature.

  5. "Why Butterflies Matter." Butterfly Conservation.