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Using citizen science butterfly counts to predict species population trends

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Citizen scientists are increasingly engaged in gathering biodiversity information, but trade‐offs are often required between public engagement goals and reliable data collection. We compared population estimates for 18 widespread butterfly species derived from the first 4 years (2011–2014) of a short‐duration citizen science project (Big Butterfly Count [BBC]) with those from long‐running, standardized monitoring data collected by experienced observers (U.K. Butterfly Monitoring Scheme [UKBMS]). BBC data are gathered during an annual 3‐week period, whereas UKBMS sampling takes place over 6 months each year. An initial comparison with UKBMS data restricted to the 3‐week BBC period revealed that species population changes were significantly correlated between the 2 sources. The short‐duration sampling season rendered BBC counts susceptible to bias caused by interannual phenological variation in the timing of species’ flight periods. The BBC counts were positively related to butterfly phenology and sampling effort. Annual estimates of species abundance and population trends predicted from models including BBC data and weather covariates as a proxy for phenology correlated significantly with those derived from UKBMS data. Overall, citizen science data obtained using a simple sampling protocol produced comparable estimates of butterfly species abundance to data collected through standardized monitoring methods. Although caution is urged in extrapolating from this U.K. study of a small number of common, conspicuous insects, we found that mass‐participation citizen science can simultaneously contribute to public engagement and biodiversity monitoring. Mass‐participation citizen science is not an adequate replacement 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.
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Keywords: Big Butterfly Count; Esquema de Monitoreo de Mariposas del Reino Unido; Gran Conteo de Mariposas; UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme; abundancia de mariposas; butterfly abundance; fenología; gardens; generalized abundance index; jardines; phenology; species trends; tendencias de las especies; índice de abundancia generalizada

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2017

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