Citizen Science Program Successfully Tracks Butterfly Populations in Northwest Indiana
From May through September each year, volunteer Gerry Lehmann, Ogden Dunes, IN, hikes the 3-mile trail at the Tolleston Dunes Unit (formerly the Inland Marsh Unit) of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Porter County to record important weekly findings for TNC as well as National Lakeshore staff. But he’s not monitoring the state-imperiled and rare arctic bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), gorgeous blue lupine (Lupinus perennis) and other flora or birds that can be found there. He’s only interested in finding one thing: butterflies.
Picky about where they live and easily impacted by habitat changes, butterflies, such as the federally endangered Karner Blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), are a perfect species for revealing the health of a particular ecosystem – in this case a system of dune ridges, interdunal wetlands and marshes that are interspersed with oak savanna.
Importance of butterfly counts
Butterfly counts from this site and others, such as TNC’s Ivanhoe Dune and Swale Preserve in Gary, IN, provide vital feedback to the Southern Lake Michigan Rim Project Office (SLMRP), Merrillville, on whether or not they have been able to actually heal the land from terrestrial invasive species and re-establish a healthy, functioning ecosystem. In addition, long-term data can be used to discern why certain species are impacted by factors such as climate change or the loss of certain plant species that a butterfly favors. Obviously, not every butterfly can be counted, but the information provides estimates that can be used to track trends over time.
According to Paul Labus, Northwest Indiana Region Director, several of the relatively small, isolated pockets of remnant dune and swale habitat in Lake County contain some of the most diverse populations of butterflies in the Chicago region, providing further incentive for participating in butterfly monitoring. “Habitat restoration and continued management at Ivanhoe Dune and Swale Nature Preserve has consistently resulted in in butterfly populations representing good numbers for 40 different species, many of which are rare, threatened or endangered,” said John Henry Drake, Conservation Practitioner at the SLMRP.
Lehmann estimates that on a good day with the right conditions he has seen as many 15 different varieties of butterflies. Conversely, “on a cold rainy, windy day only a few varieties will be active or I’ll see only 50 Little Wood Saytrs (Megisto cymela),” he said. His most exciting sighting has been the Karner Blue, a rare, short-lived, tight-ranged butterfly that, in its caterpillar stage, only feeds on the leaves of wild Lupine.
Volunteer butterfly network
There were several volunteers other than Lehmann who helped monitor nine sites in Northwest Indiana this past season including Coco Venturin, Maureen Foos, Steve Sass, Laura Tucker, Carolyn Dye, Julie Burrus and Linda Mapes. The volunteers comprise the Indiana contingent of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network (IBMN), a citizen scientist program that also tracks butterfly populations in Northeastern and Central Illinois. Indiana volunteers are coordinated by John Henry Drake.
Lehmann first became attracted to butterfly monitoring after he saw a training session given in 2010 by Drake. ‘If you are into “citizen scientist” types of projects, love the outdoors and want to learn more about the environment as well as butterflies, you should consider giving butterfly monitoring a try,’ he said. “You might believe that you can't possibly learn all those butterflies but you can carry a cribsheet and a Kaufman’s Field Guide to Butterflies of North America and you learn quickly in the field by just doing it,” said Lehmann.
More Monitors Needed
The Southern Lake Michigan Rim Project Office is annually in need of monitors from May through September to weekly collect data on the same route. No experience is required but you will need to attend one of the annual training events. If you would like to learn more, listen to John Henry Drake, Regional Ecologist at the Indiana Chapter, on a replay of an internet radio interview conducted in January 2013. For more information or to sign up, contact John Henry Drake.