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.

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.

Citizen Science Wednesday: What is Citizen Science?

Monarch butterflies on a flower

Monarch butterflies are the subject of several citizen science projects. Source: David Wagner,

I’ve been immersed in citizen science for the past year. When I talk about what I’ve been doing, I have a tendency to assume that everyone else has been as well.

That’s not remotely true; most people, in fact, don’t have any idea what citizen science is. As a result, “What is citizen science?” is the most common question that I’ve been asked.

My basic definition is “Organized scientific research that welcomes observations or analysis from the general public.” But in discussions, I find it easier to start with an example. So here’s the reasonably quick answer that I’ve developed:

Imagine that you’re a scientist and you’re studying animal migrations. Obviously, you can’t be everywhere that a specific animal is migrating. But it’s not generally real difficult information to collect. So these scientists have opened their research up to contributions from anyone who’s interested.

At this point, many people will respond with some variation of “I didn’t realize there were so many scientists studying animal migrations.” Whether they do or not, the next bit of my spiel covers the same area: I explain that citizen science is, in fact, broader than that illustration, and includes research in a lot of topics that invite the general public to contribute either observations or analysis. In fact, a lot of the book is given over to simply describing some of the projects that are available that people can get involved in.

The variety is bigger than topic, though. Some citizen science projects are worldwide, while others are restricted to specific localities; some require extensive training, while others require minimal outside knowledge; and some are time-consuming while others require only a few minutes. The book—and this site—will help provide a road map to these projects for anyone interested.

A note about definitions: My definition isn’t the only one. Some people might include any scientific research that’s done by non-professionals or science-related activities that don’t involve some sort of research aspect. I wouldn’t, but that’s not a value judgment—just how I break things down.