Campus Collage

Campus Collage

Counting Butterflies for Citizen Science

During a quest for unidentified flying objects, you keep your eyes to the sky.It only takes a second for a flash of yellow to flutter by or a streak of black to wave in the wind. If you’re biological sciences professor Don Miller, you can identify the species from 50 feet away, calling out scientific names and committing sightings to memory.  

It’s a skill that has served the entomologist well over the years, as he continues to lead the annual butterfly count at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER). Aiming to monitor populations over time, the butterfly count is the North American Butterfly Association’s response to the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count and takes place every summer.“We think of butterflies as ambassadors for wildlife,” Miller said. “If they are doing well, then the other varieties of wildlife—birds, plants, mushrooms—are doing OK, too.”  

Butterfly count volunteers examine a species list prior to the hunt.

Butterfly count volunteers examine a species list prior to the hunt.

During this year’s count, he promised to see lots of common ringlets, California tortoiseshells, and common buckeyes. Orange sulphurs were likely, as were the goldhunter’s hairstreak. He also had hopes for a Gorgon copper and a rural skipper, which allegedly looks like a fighter jet when it lands.  

BCCER counters also boast recording more Sylvan hairstreaks than anyone in the nation or the world.  

“They are our champs. It’s our badge of honor,” Miller said.  

The butterfly count is as much about visiting BCCER as it is citizen science, said Jon Aull, the education and research coordinator for the University’s ecological reserves. His Field Guide to Butterflies is well-thumbed, streaked with highlights, and flagged with dozens of yellow tabs. This marked his fourth year as part of the BCCER’s butterfly count, but it’s been going for more than a decade.  

“Back then, it was footloose and fancy-free. We just went out and looked,” Miller said. “Now, we have to count.”  

Spotting a flutter near a bush, Aull demonstrated his stealth and cat-like reflexes in trying to catch a butterfly. He pinned the tiny insect between the soft netting so he could take a closer look, and after eyeing the spots on its underside and pale blue wings, he started to speculate if it was an echo blue when it slipped from his gentle grasp and flew to freedom.  

“It’s harder to catch them than you might think,” Aull said.  

BCCER’s 2017 tally was 34 species and 820 individual butterflies, including five large white skippers—an exceptionally remarkable sighting considering the species was previously unseen at the reserve.  

Grant Funds Invaluable Hydrothermal Research

On her own in the otherwise off-limits expanses of Lassen Volcanic National Park, geology major Angelica Rodriguez is pursuing a little-studied examination of the active volcanic area’s hydrothermal system. 

Rodriguez admits she has always been interested in science. When she was a little girl, her older sister told her she would grow out of it. Scared by the prospect, her passion only intensified.  

“I literally Googled ‘how to be outdoors and do science all the time,’” she said. “You get to ask a question and maybe you get lucky and you answer it. And when you answer a question in science, it makes you want to ask more.”’  

With the guidance of professor Rachel Teasdale, Rodriguez is studying water temperatures and other hydrothermal elements, using data recorders that take readings every 15 minutes. As the only continuous data collection on hydrothermal systems in the Cascades, the regular readings provide insight well beyond the Lassen system.  

“It’s meaningful science contributing to our understanding of volcanoes,” Teasedale said. 

Angelica Rodriguez monitors hydrothermal water temperature and composition at Lassen Volcanic National Park for her Chico STEM Connections Collaborative 2017 summer research project.

Angelica Rodriguez monitors hydrothermal water temperature and composition at Lassen Volcanic National Park for her Chico STEM Connections Collaborative 2017 summer research project.

Rodriguez’s work is made possible through a $4.2 million, five-yeargrant from the US Department of Education, as well as support fromthe Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. The Hispanic-Serving Institution STEM grant supports agriculture, natural sciences, and engineering, computer science, and construction management students who identify as low-income or Hispanic. As other students work to restore salmon habitats and study seed germination, Rodriguez makes regular trips to Lassen Volcanic National Park to record data and collect samples to support her invaluable research.  

The grant also helped her invest in new tools for her data collection and send her to an international conference where she presented her preliminary results to professionals.  

“Already, other students are seeing her as a role model,” Teasdale said. “Her attitude of ‘I did it, and so can you’—those are the messages that all students need, but especially students who have not had access to those kinds of role models or opportunities before.”  

Rodriguez feels like she’s helping the greater good in adding to the hydrothermal data pool, as well as setting an example for other students to follow in her footprint.  

“My parents worked really hard to do three jobs to give us opportunities. They are very proud that I’m taking my education into my own hands.”  

—Ashley Gebb, Publications Editor  

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