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

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.