Community science plays a crucial role in entomology research. Scientists regularly use observations, collated on databases such as iNaturalist, and specimens collected by community members in their research.
A recent study by Erica Fischer and their co-authors has revealed that specimens of Lepidoptera (an order of insects that includes butterflies and moths) have mainly been collected the community, rather than entomologists working at universities or natural history museums. However, between 1998 and 2009, the number of collections decreased by over a half. At the same time, the number of observations submitted to online databases has exploded.
The increase in observations shows there is no lack of interest in butterflies and moths. So why are community scientists, as well as professionals, collecting less specimens?
The researchers suggest that the decline is partially caused by a lack of funding, as well as a decrease in students learning the skills needed to collect specimens. In addition, many insect collections are not easily accessible, as they are not digitized (here is an example of a digitized collection). Lastly, they point out that taking a photo of an butterfly is much easier and quicker than collecting a specimen, especially as most people have a camera in their phone, so community scientists opt for this method of ‘collecting’ animals more often.
Despite the increase in observations, the lack of physical insect specimens could become an issue for future research, as they provide a wealth of additional information. For example, DNA can be extracted, and the morphology and internal anatomy can be studied in detail on real specimens. This is why museum collections are so important.
Although anybody can be a community scientist and contribute to entomology research, don’t go out and catch any butterfly you see, as there may be laws about what you can and cannot collect. Instead, join your local entomology society for a field trip or attend a BioBlitz to learn more!