Citizen Science Tuesday: Butterflies and Moths of North America

Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia). Photo by Charlie Kellogg through a Creative Commons License.

What is Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA)?

Did you see a cool butterfly or moth recently, but you don’t know what it is?

Do you want to get kids excited about insects and nature?

BAMONA will identify your butterfly and moth photos – all for free!

And not just pictures of adult butterflies, they identify pictures of caterpillars (larval stage) and cocoons (pupal stage) as well.

They also mark the sighting on an online map, and store the data (species, photo, time, and location) for anyone to use.

Even if you don’t have a photo to identify and you’re just curious about butterflies and moths, BAMONA is an amazing resource with regional checklists, an image gallery, and many detailed species profiles.

Why is it important?

BAMONA has set out to create a comprehensive database of butterfly and moth species in North America.

The project was begun by the USGS and came from a realization that there was a need for scientifically accurate, accessible, species distribution data. Though government funding was phased out and there is no paid staff, BAMONA continues to exist thanks to a large network of dedicated volunteers.

BAMONA was not created with specific research questions in mind. Nevertheless, the data can be used to answer many important questions.

“Lots of times we don’t know what larval stages look like. Most of the time you could take [a caterpillar or cocoon] to everyone in North America and nobody would know what it would turn into,” explains Kelly Lotts, co-founder and administrator of BAMONA.

“If you take a picture of a caterpillar, keep it and see what it turns into and send a picture of the butterfly or moth. It could be new science.”

Lotts says, “It happens all the time” that people send in photos of caterpillars or cocoons and it is not possible to identify until it becomes an adult. That’s not because the lepidopterists for BAMONA lack the expertise, but because there is no scientific record of the larval stage for many North American species.

By raising a caterpillar & sending some photos, you could discover new scientific data about a species that lives in your back yard!

BAMONA is not seeking to answer a specific research question, but they frequently receive data requests and many studies have been published using data from BAMONA.

“We get a lot of data requests from scientists doing species range modeling; looking at butterflies as indicators of climate change. We also get local data use, like national heritage programs looking at the status of species. Many agencies rank abundance of species using BAMONA. Sometimes people request data for smaller things like planning a natural area that will include the butterflies & moths.”

All of these uses of BAMONA data help scientists and communities understand butterfly and moth populations, plan conservation, and provide appropriate habitats for target species.

Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). Photo by Flickr user TexasEagle through a Creative Commons license.

Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). Photo by Flickr user TexasEagle through a Creative Commons license.

BAMONA already contains information from hundreds of thousands of sightings and they are partnering with monitoring networks and communities to house more data.

The map of recently verified sightings is updated with new submissions quickly, making BAMONA especially exciting for children.

“It’s cool when kids get involved at five and it’s so cool when they keep coming back because they saw their photo and the point on the map. It gets kids involved in entomology and some go on to study entomology because of that early interaction.”

Some schools with butterfly gardens submit their data to BAMONA and have a special hashtag for their sightings. They can easily recall data with that hashtag and track species information for just their class garden.

How do you get involved?

The easiest and most common way to participate is by registering and submitting a photo.

“All you need is a digital image & access to a computer with internet,” says Lotts.

You will be asked to enter the time that you took the photo and mark the location on a map.

If you think that you might know what species it is, you can submit a suggested identification.

Your submission will be checked by the regional coordinators, volunteer lepidopterists (people who study butterflies and moths). They will then publish your sighting on the website with the identification.

If you know a lot about identifying a group of moths or butterflies, you could volunteer to help with identifications.

Or, if you’d rather look at pictures of butterflies and moths than take them, you can volunteer to help select the best images for the website.

All volunteer opportunities with BAMONA from submitting pictures to identifying them can be done whenever you have the time and you can choose how much time to spend on them.

If you live in Central America or the Southern U.S., you might see butterflies year round, but for the rest of North America early spring through summer is the easiest time to spot adults.

If there is a long enough warm period, then you might get two generations of butterflies in just one spring-summer. That provides a good opportunity to get pictures of the caterpillars and cocoons.

Next time you see a butterfly, moth, or, better still, caterpillar or cocoon, snap a quick picture and send it to BAMONA!

You’ll learn something cool about nature and you might get hooked!

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] with information about the project or leave a comment below with a link.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

Posted In: Citizen Science

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