Citizen Science

What Will That Caterpillar Become?

Frozen Head Natural Area & State Park, Morgan County, Tennessee, USA. 25 August 2007. This large caterpillar was found by one of the vendors at our Heritage Day Festival. Photo © Michael Hodge / Flickr 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 BAMONA 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.

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 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!

In the case of the caterpillar at the top of this post, we do know what it will become. A beautiful Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia). Photo © Marvin Smith / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
In the case of the caterpillar at the top of this post, we do know what it will become. A beautiful Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia). Photo © Marvin Smith / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

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.

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.

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.

Weidemeyer’s admiral butterfly during Wyoming’s annual Butterfly Blitz. Photo © Amy Pocewicz
Weidemeyer’s admiral butterfly during Wyoming’s annual Butterfly Blitz. Photo © Amy Pocewicz

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!

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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  1. I have seen what I believe to be a western tiger swallowtail butterfly in south central Mason county Texas! Didn’t know they got this far east. I have pictures if you are interested.

  2. My neighbor here in Estero Fl., has had an infestation of small moths, or butterflies which have stripped large bushes of leaves with the small green with yellow striped larvae, at the same time they are flying off as small, single wing (per side) black with white tips, red/orange body, no more than 1 inch total wing span. We belong to a garden club and are familiar with many of the native species of butterfly, but this little guy has us baffled. I do have a picture on my phone, but don’t see how to attach here. Any information on what it is or how to control it’s ability to strip bushes would be appreciated.

  3. i have a red caterpillar and it is like the normal squishy hairless green caterpillar . For now i am keeping it in a large ice cream container with plants, grass, hay, leaves e.t.i am exited to watch it grow aswell as the bird nest outside.

  4. Well i found this little green larvae and it green and i have no idea what it is so i trying to identify and it was in my window frame and it cold outside so i brought it in my room and its alive but dont knowwhat to feed it

  5. please get back to me if you can if i had to guess that its a monarch butterfly larvae and it stays still but moves if i touch it

  6. How can you tell if a cocoon is dead if not hatched into a butterfly in months

  7. Can I send a picture and someone tell me what kind of caterpillar we saw at the park today?