Investigating the Spotted Tussock Moth

Some of my favorite experiences in writing the book were learning about truly independent citizen science projects. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not denigrating the projects that are sponsored by institutions. Good work is good work, after all, and as a practical matter, institutions are an effective way to ensure that things get done on a continuing basis.

It can be tough to make things happen and keep them happening without an institutional framework. In writing the book, I was really impressed by the projects that developed independently, just because some individual was interested in something and wanted to learn more.

Spotted tussock moth and caterpillar varieties

Spotted tussock moth and caterpillar varieties

Ken Strothkamp’s research into the spotted tussock moth is one of those projects. It started when his daughter found a moth he couldn’t identify. He turned to the Butterflies and Moths of North America website for assistance; there he learned not only what the moth was, but also that it hadn’t been documented in their county before. They were able to see the difference that their discovery made in the species’ range maps, and from there they were hooked.

Ken is a researcher at Lewis & Clark College in Portland Oregon, but he knew nothing about butterflies or moths when he started investigating. In particular, he was curious about regional variations in coloring in the spotted tussock moth’s caterpillar. In eastern North America and along the California coast, the caterpillar is yellow and black, but in the interior west it’s orange and black. The Pacific Northwest population has significant variation in coloration.

While Ken has formal scientific training and access to a lab, he also has more than 50 citizen contributors who share observations, photos, and specimens.  He produces an annual report for those contributors, and he gave me permission to share some of the most recent results with you.

The project has made progress in identifying several of the pigments that make up the various colors of the caterpillar—zeaxanthin, a yellow pigment that it gets from its food; and eumelanin, a black pigment it makes itself (also the pigment which is found in black human hair). An orange pigment in the caterpillar remains unidentified, but it may be the same one found in red hair in humans.

Ken has theorized that the Pacific Northwest population is a hybrid of the western interior and coastal California forms made possible when the climate warmed after the last ice age and the species migrated north. He has demonstrated the possibility of this theory by hybridizing the two variants in the lab. These hybrids showed the same color variations as wild spotted tussock moths in the Pacific Northwest.

The research has raised other questions. These include:

  • The cause of a rare white phenotype of the spotted tussock moth, in which the caterpillar will lose some of its pigmentation during its fourth instar (developmental stage; each caterpillar undergoes five in total) but its coloration will be normal as an adult moth.
  • How different populations hybridized when the coastal California variation has two generations per year but other varieties breed only once annually, which reduces the period when both varieties have adults flying at the same time.
  • Whether the production of black dorsal spots in the fifth instar in some regions but not others provides further evidence of hybridization.
  • White variant of spotted tussock moth caterpillarWhether a newly discovered caterpillar color variant (white with a yellow central region with black spots, as pictured) reverts to more typical coloration, what causes it, and if it’s a unique individual or if there are others like it.

For more details and to contribute to the project, contact Ken at


The Book is Here!

The big excitement of my past couple of weeks is this:


It took a surprising amount of wrangling with UPS for it to actually get to me, but yes, that is my book, and it’s published and released and ready for reading.

There’s even a press release, which is pretty exciting. You can, of course, order your own copy. Local libraries will hopefully carry it as well, although that kind of decision happens on the local level. (So if you’d like to check it out of your library, you may need to suggest they order it first; most libraries have some procedure for patrons to recommend books for them to carry).

But enough of the shameless self-promotion, and a bit about the projects featured in the book. One of the things about book publishing is that it’s got a pretty long lead time. So watch this site for updates and news from the roughly 100 citizen science projects included in the book.

Citizen Science Wednesday: Tidying Up Range Maps

Rough green snake

Rough green snake; photo by cotinis via; used under Creative Commons license

Where do different animals live? That doesn’t seem like a terribly complicated question. After all, any field guide to anything will have range maps for whatever the guide is about.

In researching my book, I learned that those range maps are… well… only OK. In reality, they serve as general guidelines than absolute truth.

Citizen science is pretty well-suited to help improve them. Professional scientists, after all, can’t be everywhere to check if a given species has shown up in a given place. Amateurs can help to fill in the gaps.

One of the most celebrated examples of this was the nine-spotted ladybug. It’s the state insect of New York, but it hadn’t been seen in the state for almost 30 years and was believed to be extinct in the state. Until, of course, it was found again by a participant in the Lost Ladybug Project in 2011. (This was the second notable discovery of a nine-spotted ladybug through the project; a preteen brother and sister found one in Virginia in 2006, which was the first one found in the eastern US in 14 years.)

Many projects aim simply to get a grasp of what might live where. The Minnesota Odonata Survey Project, for example, is trying to rectify the fact that there are counties without any records of dragonflies or damselflies, even though those counties certainly have odonates in them. As project leader Kurt Mead told me, the state is sort of a crossroads for dragonflies and damselflies, and species from all parts of the continent have ranges that overlap there.

Camera phones are a great boon to this kind of work; they let amateurs document their finds, even if they don’t know for certain what they are, so that experts can make identifications and investigate further if needed.

I’m slowly populating the links section in the sidebar with citizen science projects. This week’s additions are this type of project that aim (at least in part) to help improve range maps of various species, including:

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Carolina Herp Atlas

Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas

School of Ants

Link Dump Sunday: No piano pressure

Adam Stevens argues for more science in citizen science. Worth a look, although as I’ve written, I see value in the non-research elements of citizen science as well.

Curiosity, for example, is awesome, and citizen science can help pique it. Also, helping kids develop the skills they will need to ultimately enter a scientific career.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology highlights some of its citizen science projects, with particular focus on their use in education.

Citizen science results: The effect of climate change on butterfly flight; finding “lost” plant species.

New (to me) citizen science projects: Uncover Your Creeks (water quality monitoring in Vancouver, British Columbia); Secchi App (a worldwide phytoplankton study).

Miscellaneous birding tidbits.

Steven Brust sends an open letter to his editor. It’s funny.

Also funny: Weird Al Yankovic’s set-up for teaching his daughter the piano. If I ever teach music, I’m going to replicate this.

Citizen Science Wednesday: Research, Advocacy, and Education

Citizen science is more than just science.

That’s not to say that citizen science isn’t science, because it is, or at least can be. But citizen science as a general field has three broad goals:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly at Merwin Nature Preserve in McLean County, Illinois. Photo by tlindenbaum. Used under Creative Commons license.

Research: This is where the science comes in. Research would encompass any sort of data collecting and analysis that helps humanity as a whole to understand more about the world. The Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network is an example that I’d consider to focus on this area; it has strict data collection protocols and a goal of collecting and analyzing information about the butterfly populations at specific locations.

Advocacy: Many citizen science projects have conservation or contribution to policy decision-making as an explicit part of their goals. Even those that don’t, however, could be seen as having some advocacy element. (Few people study something out of their incredible indifference to it.) GLOBE at Night is an example of this. As its website says: “The GLOBE at Night program is an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness.”

Education: Learning is a natural consequence of citizen science: As someone participates in a project, they will naturally learn about its subject and about science in general. Journey North has a strong educational component; this project studying wildlife migration and seasonal changes* was originally targeted toward students, and while it’s now open to everyone, learning generally about the subjects covered is still a strong focus.

These categories aren’t really as strict as I’ve described them here; just about all projects have some mix of all three. The Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, for example, is not be particularly accessible for casual participation, which somewhat limits its ability to serve as a broad public education tool. But those who do participate are responsible for learning about the wide variety of species studied by the project, and the information they collect is used in land management decisions.

“But is it science,” is a pretty common criticism of citizen science. I think the question misses the point. Citizen science includes research, but that isn’t its sole goal, and I don’t think it has to be to be worthwhile. Moreover, the wide range of available projects means that participants can find a project with the focus—both in subject and in the mix of research, advocacy, and learning—that fits for them.

* The proper term for the study of seasonal changes like ice-out dates, migrations, plant blooming, and the like is “phenology.” I’ll be using that term from here on out, because it’s a great word, although since most people don’t know it (I certainly didn’t before starting this book) I’ll keep defining it.

The Western Citizen Science Project

This afternoon, I gave my first interview (as a subject; I’ve been the interviewer plenty) about citizen science. It was with Natalie Paddon of the Western Citizen Science project.

Western Citizen Science is a student journalism project investigating citizen science based at Western University in London, Ontario. They’re in the early days of the project, but it should be interesting to watch it develop.

A Video (semi-)Brag

Recently, I’ve been dabbling in entering video contests. It’s fun, and a nicely directed creative outlet. I haven’t won any yet, although my entry for the Property Room “Journey to Auction” contest was a runner-up and won me a nice gift card.

I’ve got a second instance of near-victory to report. I entered the Language Addicts “State the Obvious” contest. While I didn’t win anything, I did place a couple of videos in the “showcase of a handful of our more notable entries.” It’s nice to be able to come close, at least.

These are simple videos, with good reason: They’re for a language-learning company for use to help people learn English.

More videos are on their way. I’m working on one for another contest, and I’ve been rolling around an idea for a set of comedy videos as well.


While this has nothing to do with video, it does have something to do with citizen science. This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, a 4-day count that is working to create a real-time snapshot of where birds are in North America. It’s a relatively quick and easy project suitable for beginners, requiring only 15 minutes of observation, although it’s worth reviewing local species before starting if you’re not a bird expert.