New research from the University of Kent shows that citizen scientists can play a role in gathering meaningful information about biodiversity trends like butterfly population changes.

For almost a century, citizen scientists have been helping researchers to monitor bird populations in the United States through activities like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. Audubon notes that “the long term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.”

In England, the annual Big Butterfly Count (BBC) serves a similar purpose.

A team of researchers, led by Kent Visiting Research Associate Dr. Emily Dennis, used data from the Big Butterfly Count to complement their findings. This annual event is organized by Butterfly Conservation to produce population change estimates for 18 common butterfly species, and is comparable to standardized monitoring data collected by skilled recorders.

UK butterflies are well suited for citizen science projects because they are conspicuous, popular, and easy to identify when compared to many other insects. The UK’s high population density and tradition of amateur natural history recording make for a good source of participants in the process, too.

The researchers say the results show that the Big Butterfly Count data can provide the potential for additional or improved assessments of biodiversity change. For example, they note, there is increasing interest in the biodiversity of urban areas, both as potential refuges for species whose habitats have been degraded in intensively farmed countryside. Not only that, but it gives people a chance to interact with wildlife, which could improve their well-being.

“Mass-participation citizen science is not an adequate substitute for standardized biodiversity monitoring but may extend and complement it (e.g., through sampling different land-use types), as well as serving to reconnect an increasingly urban human population with nature,” the researchers conclude.

To participate in Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, visit the organization’s website and sign up.

To participate in the UK’s Big Butterfly Count, visit the BBC website.