eButterfly’s Eclosure

Max_Photo_1The seed for eButterfly was planted over 60 years ago when Jacques Larivée started Études des Populations d’Oiseaux du Québec bird checklist program. Now with over 6 million records, it’s the longest-running bird checklist program in North America. The daily checklists have provided incredibly reliable information on changes in bird populations, phenology, and geographic and climate abundance patterns at local, regional, and continental scales. His young son Max Larrivée grew up checklisting in eastern Québec. It wasn’t birds that caught his eye, but rather butterflies. “Because of my dad, I swam in butterfly and bird checklists since I was five years old,” said Larrivée. “I first thought of building a checklist-based butterfly website in 2000 when I entered graduate school.”

But it wasn’t until he joined the Canadian Facility for Ecoinformatics Research, led by Jeremy Kerr at the University of Ottawa, as a Post Doctorate researcher that he was able to act on his idea. They wanted to unify all of Canada’s butterfly record data into a single database and continue to survey across the country. And the only way they could do that on a meager budget was to join a lot of professional lepidopterists and amateur butterfly watchers together.

“In 2010 I pinned two college computer science teams against one another to build a beta version of eButterfly,” said Larrivée. “ And that is how I met Sambo Zhang who turned out to be a real wizard of a programmer for this sort of thing and we’ve been working together ever since.” After two years of fine-tuning the system, with great support from local butterfly experts Peter Hall, Ross Layberry, Jeff Skevington, Rick Cavasin and the Ottawa area butterfly group and they launched a modest Canadian eButterfly program in 2012. The site was a success in Canada, but they knew they could make it even better and expand it across the remainder of North America to increase to scope and research potential of the data gathered by the project.

Katy Prudic, a research scientist at Oregon State University, was thinking the same thing. Butterflies, an important part of many ecosystems, are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature, population growth, urban sprawl, changes in land and water use, and many other forces, Prudic said. Experts have the ability with powerful computers to interpret these changes and better understand how they are affecting biodiversity – but they don’t have the manpower to gather all the data. She quickly joined the eButterfly team and helped them expand across North America.

With eButterfly’s popularity rising rapidly, they were poised to evolve the site even further. Kent McFarland, a long-time butterfly watcher and director of the Vermont Butterfly Survey at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, had been managing the first eBird state portal for over a decade. “I started using eButterfly right away when I discovered it and I realized it had the potential to be as big and powerful as eBird one day,” said McFarland.

He joined the team and they soon traveled to the home of eBird at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology where Team eBird offered to give technical advice for a few days. “The folks at eBird were incredible,” said Larrivée. “They really encouraged us to keep going and were incredibly helpful in advising us on all aspects of this. It really allowed us to leap forward quickly.”

Armed with a better understanding of the underpinnings of eBird, the team worked through the fall and winter racing to get the new and improved eButterfly ready by spring. “Most of the work fell on Sambo,” said Larrivée. “He takes an idea we have or some tool on eBird we like and then a few days later, he has a beta version for us in eButterfly. He’s really amazing.”

With its new look and ease of use eButterfly allows everyone from children to senior citizens, beginners to professionals, and from gardens to remote mountaintops, to easily share their butterfly sightings with others. “What we need, and what we believe the new eButterfly now provides, is a tool for thousands of individuals to contribute data on butterfly sightings from all over North America for decades to come,” Prudic said. “This will be a wonderful opportunity for people to get involved in science, appreciate nature and our changing world, and interact with and enjoy biodiversity.”