Vision for a Biodiversity Observation Network
Phase 1: Moths

John Pickering

Let's empower communities to run ecological research sites, engage their members in science,
and generate the knowledge that society needs to understand and solve pressing environmental issues.


Science -- Climate change, land use, invasive species, pollution, and over-harvesting threaten biodiversity and the ecosystem services that the biota provides. Without massive public participation in research, scientists are unlikely to understand fully the impacts of these large-scale problems and recommend timely solutions. The tasks at hand are simply too big for governments and professional scientists to tackle without considerable help from the general public and the private sector. Furthermore, because of logistical constraints, we cannot conduct randomized, replicated experiments at regional and continental scales to understand the impact on species of climate change and other phenomena. However, a dense network of long-term study sites across continents could use natural field experiments, such as unseasonable temperatures and local droughts, to do so. Here we propose a network, in partnership with NEON ( and other organizations, to collect such data and teach science.

Education -- Is it too much to dream that students and others empowered by internet connectivity, digital cameras, and a vast array of other technologies could solve the planet's environmental problems by collecting, analyzing, and acting upon data? Let's overcome classroom boredom by challenging students to solve real-world problems. Instead of teaching students to memorize information that they can retrieve from their smart phones, let's encourage them to explore the unknown, discover new things, and use technology to share their findings with the world. We can develop their curiosity, creativity, and logic by giving each an exciting personal challenge---become a local expert on a species in your neighborhood and investigate, document, and understand its biology, environmental requirements, and interactions. By involving students in meaningful, original research, we can teach them quantitative methods, problem solving, communication skills, teamwork, and other valuable job skills.


Discover Life ( is a natural history website with 13 servers at the University of Georgia in the United States and the University of New South Wales in Australia. The website integrates original web tools such as species identification guides, photographic albums, databases of specimen records from museums and herbaria, maps, phenology graphs, and species pages linking information. The site supports multiple citizen science research protocols that use digital photography, cell phones, GPS, on-line identification tools, and teams of taxonomic experts to ensure high-quality, verifiable data on species occurrences and interactions. Contributors to its most developed citizen science project, "Mothing" (, have uploaded over 190,000 photographic observations on over 1,700 species from 12 intensively studied sites in the United States and one in Costa Rica. In May 2013, Discover Life served 671,000 users and, since its inception in 1998, has totaled 1.8 billion hits.

Discover Life is working with ATREE in India, CONABIO in Mexico, the USGS and North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in the United States, and other organizations in these countries and elsewhere to build an international observation network of selected taxa. We are developing research protocols for participants to collect high-quality data on a broad range of groups including vertebrates, insect pollinators, herbivores, fungi, and plants. Here we focus on moths, because our pilot work with them has been so successful.

Moths are an ideal sentinel group to study worldwide. They are biologically diverse, ecologically important, and can be observed efficiently and safely across a network of study sites by non-specialists. Moths and butterflies are in the order Lepidoptera. This order is second only to Coleoptera (beetles) in species richness. Worldwide there are about 300,000 moth species, of which approximately 165,000 are scientifically described. While day-flying butterflies are more well-known, there are over 10 times as many moth species as butterflies. In North America, where the moth fauna is relatively well known, 11,820 species are described; in India and Costa Rica, where moths are less well known, about 10,000 and 20,000 total species exist, respectively. At some field sites, moth diversity can reach 1,000 or more species, rivaling or exceeding the total diversity of vascular plants, macrofungi, lichens, and vertebrates combined. Moths are ecologically and economically important in many terrestrial ecosystems as mid-level members of the food chain. They are a food source for birds, bats, and many other insectivores. As herbivores their larvae can be destructive crop pests. Because night-flying moths are attracted to lights, they are much easier to sample in large numbers than butterflies. In fact, because of modern digital cameras, moths are now one of the easiest groups to document and identify accurately in large numbers.

Moth identification is challenging. However, we have proven that most moths can be rapidly identified to species from digital photographs, once images, identification guides, and diagnostic characters to species are available on the web. At Discover Life's Blue Heron observation site in Athens, Georgia, a team of participants photographs all insects nightly. In the last three years, they have photographed over 75,000 moth specimens, of which they have identified 94% to over 1,000 different species. Each night Discover Life's automated software updates data, analyzes observations across sites, and makes them available on-line in maps, phenology graphs, species accumulation curves, and tables. For example, the phenology graph for Clemensia albata, Little White Lichen Moth (, shows that this species has three annual generations in Georgia and two at more northern sites. It also documents significantly earlier flight activity in 2012, a warm year, than in 2010, 2011, and 2013.

In addition to being scientifically valuable study organisms in their own right, moths are easily-studied model insects. We can use them as a bellwether of how temperature and other factors will affect insect distribution, phenology, abundance, synchrony, and function. They should reflect how changes in abiotic and biotic variables will generally impact pollination, herbivory, and other important ecological functions.


Here we propose to expand Discover Life's "Mothing" project in the United States and start it in India.

United States -- We will establish one or more observation sites in each of NEON's 20 eco-climatic domains and collect data at them nightly throughout the flight season. At each observation site we will recruit, train, and employ a team that includes a college or university faculty member, paid undergraduates, and volunteers to study their local moths. In the first year, we will establish observation sites in 5 eastern domains. In subsequent years we will scale up to have sites across all 20 domains. These teams will collaborate with local museums to digitize historical specimen records so that we can compare phenology and distribution over time.

Each team will replicate what has been accomplished in Athens, Georgia. They will rapidly collect and share vast quantities of high-quality data from numerous study sites with digital photography and Discover Life's on-line tools. By analyzing moth communities across sites and years in conjunction with data collected by NEON, NOAA, NASA, and other sources, we will collectively take advantage of natural experiments to better understand and predict moths and their interactions with other species. We will document how ecological communities respond to weather, land use, invasive species, and other environmental variables.

India -- Considerable on-line information and an active user community exists for North American moths. These include Discover Life's regional on-line identification guides (; the Moth Photographers Group's image gallery, maps, and phenology tables (, 700+ contributors); Facebook's Mothing and Moth-watching group (, 500+ members), and BugGuide ( These resources facilitate the efficient and accurate identification of North American moth photographs. Discover Life proposes to work with ATREE and other organizations to build a functionally equivalent on-line infrastructure and user community for India. We will make these available through the India Biodiversity Portal ( and a consortium of partner websites, including those listed at

We will assemble images, checklists, historical occurrence records, diagnostic taxonomic descriptions, host records, and other information from numerous sources, including the web, literature, museums, and other resources, including GBIF, EOL, and the moth sites listed at We will build an image gallery of species by photographing museum specimens, assembling images from enthusiasts and other contributors, and photographing moths at 10 long-term observation sites that we propose to establish across India. For all Indian moths we will build comprehensive on-line taxon pages and regional on-line identification guides.

Once we have this infrastructure and the capacity to identify Indian moths rapidly, we will add more observation sites and collect data nightly. Thus, we intend to have a parallel moth observation network with similar goals to the one we propose above for the NEON domains in the United States.

Education -- Much awaits discovery about moths, their natural history, and how they will affected by by environmental changes. In India, for example, we are likely to discover many undescribed species new to science. In addition to answering pressing large-scale ecological questions, the proposed network will provide much material for many high-school science fair through university-level research projects. To facilitate students participation in this scientific endeavor, Discover Life is putting all data from its "Mothing" project on-line immediately. As part of their terms of use, students may freely use the collective data in class assignments and present them at Science Fairs and similar venues.