Photo by Leslie Seaton

Citizen science projects abound, and the benefits of ordinary people undertaking scientific research are many: gathering large volumes of data, sourcing information from a wider variety of locations than possible through traditional means, and providing opportunities for local residents to learn more about the nature that surrounds them. What is less clear is whether data gathered via citizen science methods is able to capture accurate and reliable data, relative to results gained from other types of scientific study. Researchers from the University of Illinois and the Chicago Academy of Sciences conducted a longitudinal study of citizen science projects monitoring butterflies in Chicago and New York City, to see how data gathered by citizen scientists in each city stacked up to what might be expected from typical scientific research methods.


Researchers Kevin Matteson, Doug Taron, and Emily Minor studied the effectiveness of each city’s butterfly monitoring program, and compared the results gained in each situation. Their ultimate aim was to develop guidelines for improving urban citizen science data collection methods. According to Matteson, a key focus of this effort, distinguishing it from previous studies more exclusively focused on assessing accuracy of citizen science data, was to examine “how citizen science efforts originate (e.g., bottom-up or top-down) and how the resulting data collection protocols can affect the output.” Two important factors distinguishing butterfly monitoring efforts in New York and those in Chicago were sampling “season” and monitoring protocol. In New York, citizen scientists monitored butterflies year-round, while the Chicago program requires participants, members of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, to monitor butterfly activity during the summer, from June to early August. New York butterfly sightings were gathered from the North American Butterfly Association database (recent sightings here: http://sightings.naba.org), and volunteers report butterflies spotted at any location. Chicago participants are encouraged to visit the same site at least six times throughout the summer, and walk pre-determined Pollard Transects (more details about the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network protocol here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQa86GeyY3Q).

Despite the differences in monitoring approach, relatively similar results were gained in New York and Chicago over the ten-year period. Volunteers spotted 89 of 103 possible species in Chicago and 108 of 121 possible species in New York, with fairly high annual percentages reported annually. The researchers concluded that the different citizen science approaches to butterfly monitoring each might be suitable for unique goals: the “undirected” butterfly monitoring approach used in New York City might be useful if the goal is to quickly and efficiently detect butterfly species, while a standardized protocol like the one practiced in Chicago and throughout the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network is a good approach for collecting consistent data and identifying trends over long periods of time (Matteson et al., 563).

Regardless of selected approach, Matteson et al.’s study confirms that urban citizen scientists can play an important role in monitoring and understanding wildlife in cities. According to Matteson, “you might infer that this kind of project is useful based on the long-term involvement (multiple years) of some of the volunteers,” but this particular study doesn’t specifically evaluate social benefits of citizen science. He points to another recent work by Anne Toomey and Margaret Domroese exploring the relationship between participation in citizen science and conservation attitude and behavior changes (available here: http://www.academia.edu/6128458/Can_citizen_science_lead_to_positive_conservation_attitudes_and_behaviors). Other recent studies suggest the benefits of citizen science transcend the increased amount of data and geographic reach made available by citizen science; for example, a recent effort in Australia known as the Melbourne Microbat Project allowed volunteers to discover animals they did not know existed in the city and to learn about the role bats played in their local ecosystem, while the scientists gained essential logistical support and gain insights from diverse perspectives on their research approach (read the study here).

Matteson is hopeful about the power of future of citizen science efforts in cities; he says: “There is more nature than we realize in cities and I think there is a ton of potential for innovative citizen science projects in cities to help break down the stereotype of cities as being biological deserts. I think that learning how to see the little things that cohabitate cities with us humans can help reduce stress, increase appreciation of nature, and foster environmental stewardship. The high population density and the reduced opportunities for human exposure to nature suggests to me that this could be good on multiple fronts- exposure to nature, reshaping perceptions of nature for people that live in cities, and understanding how ecological theories work (or don’t) in cities.”

It seems likely that the more people are able to understand about the wildlife inhabiting cities, the better we’ll be able to plan for compatible, flourishing habitats, supporting humans and wild alike.

Original article: Assessing Citizen Contributions to Butterfly Monitoring in Two Large Cities

Post by Julia Triman

n.b. a previous version of this post incorrectly listed the Chicago Botanical Garden as one of the research institutions affiliated with this study.