Blog Post Gail Dethloff Sep 12, 2012

Blitzed with Butterflies

A day of citizen science put this park lover face-to-face with some of the prettiest insects in the Rockies.

Clouded sulfur? Mormon fritillary? Hoary comma? I had never heard of such intriguing creatures before last month, but the Rocky Mountain BioBlitz put me in close proximity to all three. No fear factor or injuries sustained. Just a stroll in a sub-alpine meadow in an effort to inventory butterflies.

The event at Rocky Mountain National Park on August 24-25 was the sixth of ten “BioBlitzes” that the National Geographic Society and the National Park Service are partnering on over ten years. During a 24-hour period, participants focus on finding and identifying as many species as possible in specific areas of the park.

I’m an ecologist by training with an advanced degree, laboratory experiments, and fieldwork under my belt. But this was a great opportunity to step into an area I haven’t really experienced—the natural history field—where observation and monitoring of species in their environments leads to an understanding of their life and population cycles. So I stepped on the bus and became a citizen scientist, heading up to Hidden Valley with “the crowd-sourcers” to take observations and add them to the species inventory for the park.

After arriving and receiving an informative overview on butterflies in the park, I joined about a dozen other enthusiasts and we began our survey of the area. Out in the meadow, we soon caught sight of colorful wings in flight. Our group leader, a naturalist, soon had a Mormon fritillary in hand for all to observe. As our eyes became accustomed to what to look for, we started catching sight of butterflies all around. As we would catch and examine the different varieties (none were harmed during this exercise), it became clear to me that our group ranged from people who could identify species on sight to those who had designed their backyards to attract these amazing animals to those who were just excited and interested in learning for the first time about butterflies in an up-close-and-personal context. All were participating and energized as we examined features like the camouflage patterns and wing scales that gave a sense of age, and talked about how skippers weren’t technically butterflies or moths but had their own group, and why commas (we found two species) are called commas (marks on the hind wings).

When the one-hour expedition ended, our group had identified seven species and spotted two or three more that we couldn’t catch for identification. Our leader told us this was a solid sampling for so late in the season, though it was definitely a limited subset of Rocky Mountain National Park’s 140 butterfly species, a diversity that rivals that of entire states.

As we headed back out of the park, the groups of citizen scientists talked enthusiastically about what they had seen and counted. The insect group* topped all for number of species found: 37. Everyone was caught up in the spirit of inquiry and investigation. For example, the butterfly group added another species to the birding group’s count, as we had spotted a hairy woodpecker, a species the birders had not seen on their walk about a quarter-mile away.

The BioBlitz ended the next day and the initial species count from the park’s discovery sites was 489, though a bald eagle soaring over the closing ceremony where the number was announced raised it to 490. Sampled species that may be new to the park included a lizard, nine insects, and 13 nonvascular plants (nonvascular plants include green algae, mosses, liverworts, and hornworts). More than 2,000 people contributed to these numbers, the majority volunteers.

As this event shows us, our parks are prime locations for wildlife and plant conservation. Inventorying and monitoring activities like these are essential to conservation efforts because they help us understand the diversity and health of life in our parks. Additionally, the 24 hours of counting gave people the opportunity to interact with nature in ways they can’t in our normal urban and suburban environments—and a large number of people attended, clearly hoping for the kind of transformative experience nature provides. National park citizen science efforts like the BioBlitz allow every American to contribute their time, curiosity, and knowledge to the parks while taking away the excitement of discovery and essence of nature that fuel us.

*Note: The groups counted butterflies separately from the rest of the insects specifically to continue adding information to the Rocky Mountain Butterfly Project database and selected a sampling site with that in mind. The insect group did not find any additional butterfly species.

This story was cross-posted with National Parks Traveler.

About the author