A network to monitor butterfly populations in India for science, education, community building, and biodiversity conservation
A group of leading scientists, naturalists, nature educators and conservationists has announced the launch of the Indian Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (iBMS). The scientific goal of iBMS is to understand the long-term trends in butterfly population dynamics in the face of changing climate, habitats, and land-use practices. iBMS will therefore train and lead a network of students, citizen groups and scientists across the country to monitor butterflies in their neighbourhoods as well as protected areas further afield. In the process, the network will also build a community of butterfly lovers and naturalists in the service of nature education, citizen science and conservation. The large amount of data generated through iBMS will be analysed, and the annual reports, data summaries and scientific papers published will be submitted to policy-making and policy-implementing agencies such as state forest departments and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). This will ensure that the findings are translated into conservation action.
The iBMS is inspired by the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS; https://ukbms.org) that was launched in 1976 and has been running uninterrupted ever since. The success of the UKBMS subsequently galvanised the creation of similar Butterfly Monitoring Schemes across several European countries, under the European Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (eBMS; https://butterfly-monitoring.net). The North American Butterfly Monitoring Network (https://www.thebutterflynetwork.org) similarly monitors butterfly populations on that continent. Data gathered through all these monitoring schemes have revealed how butterfly populations and their long-term persistence and viability are impacted by seasonal, yearly and long-term climatic variations, changing land-use, agricultural practices (including crop systems and use of various chemical fertilisers/pesticides), pollution, and land conversions, as well as by conservation management practices and habitat restorations. They have also revealed long-term population declines in many specialised butterfly species (i.e., species that depend on specific habitats, plant species, and land-use practices) while also showing increasing abundance of widespread species that thrive in human-dominated landscapes. The scientific value of the data generated through these monitoring schemes has helped restore and conserve populations of many endangered butterfly species. These projects have also tracked population trends and suggested conservation actions that are necessary to protect other uncommon or otherwise vulnerable butterfly species and populations.
In India, the first well-known butterfly monitoring project studied population dynamics of butterflies across four habitats near the city of Pune, Maharashtra, in early 1990s (https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02703397). This project, which was done by an undergraduate student under little expert supervision, revealed how the Indian monsoon, fire, and grazing affect the breeding cycles and flight periods of butterflies in that area. A similar study from Nagpur characterised population trends of a small butterfly (the Plains Cupid (Chilades pandava)), whose wing patterns and populations fluctuate significantly in response to climatic parameters (https://www.jstor.org/stable/24107260). The study revealed climatic thresholds that influence the population dynamics and changes in wing colouration of this species.
More recently, Deepak Naik, a PhD student from Mangalore University, monitored butterflies in the nearby coastal landscapes with multiple land uses to study habitat use and seasonal population dynamics (Journal of Insect Conservation, accepted). The study identified habitats that supported butterfly species with high conservation values, proposing an indicator species approach to conservation. Finally, Suman Attiwilli, Nitin R. and Krushnamegh Kunte recently compared two common methods of surveying and monitoring butterflies across three habitats (https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.09.04.458959). The two methods were time-constrained counts and belt or line transects (including the Pollard Walks used for butterfly monitoring in the UK and Europe). The study showed that time-constrained counts are as efficient as belt transects in sampling butterflies, but capture a greater amount of species diversity in complex heterogeneous habitats such as evergreen forests and in hilly terrains that are commonly encountered in the biodiversity hotspots of India. Previous Indian studies that used the time-constrained method sampled butterflies in 30-min segments. These ‘30-min counts’ have been standardised and used for butterfly surveys all over India since 2008. The information gathered through these surveys has resulted in numerous monographs on butterfly faunas of biodiverse areas, such as the Garo Hills of Meghalaya in NE India (https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2945.2933-92), and Kameng Protected Area Complex in Arunachal Pradesh comprising Pakke Tiger Reserve, Eaglenest WLS and Sessa Orchid Sanctuary in the eastern Himalaya (https://doi.org/10.11609/jott.2922.214.171.12453-9124). Findings from these surveys have now been incorporated into management plans of several protected areas, thus translating into conservation policy. The 30-min counts have also been used to monitor butterflies in Bengaluru for the past nearly 10 years—the longest running butterfly monitoring project in India so far.
These Indian efforts have now coalesced into the creation of the iBMS. The experiences from Pune, Nagpur, Bengaluru and Mangalore (or Mangaluru), not to mention those from the UK, Europe and North America, have shown that undergraduate and PhD students, non-professional naturalists and other nature enthusiasts can collaborate with experienced scientists in generating high-quality data as well as scientifically sound research papers and report summaries. This can boost scientific growth and assist in the conservation of butterfly populations in at-risk habitats, helping state forest departments and other policy-making and policy-implementing agencies by providing valuable long-term data. These collaborations will also fulfil several biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation measures, protocols and international treaties to which India has made commitments through The Biological Diversity Act, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Paris Agreement.
Krushnamegh Kunte and Ashish Tiple, who conducted the monitoring studies in Pune and Nagpur, respectively, went on to complete their PhD theses on the biology of butterflies, and subsequently took up academic faculty positions to train other students. Dr. Kunte is now a renowned butterfly biologist, an Associate Professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bengaluru, and serves as the National Coordinator of iBMS. Deepak Naik, Suman Attiwilli, and Nitin R. have either finished their PhDs or are charting their own early research careers. Thus, a serious hobby and a commitment to the scientific inquiry opened up promising career opportunities for all these people. On the other hand, butterfly enthusiasts such as Rohit Girotra, a corporate leader, feels that monitoring butterflies in Bengaluru has helped him reconnect with nature, and find relaxation from his high-powered job. Whatever the reason, a weekend or a morning walk in the neighbourhood green patch monitoring butterflies helps people to reduce stress as well as assist butterflies and other insects to survive and even thrive in our fragmented landscapes. For these reasons, Dr. Kunte hopes that hundreds, if not thousands, of students and citizen scientists will soon register for and participate in the monitoring of butterfly populations across India. iBMS will release national-level annual assessments of butterfly populations and their long-term trajectories to its contributors, government agencies, and the citizenry at large. This network will also connect with international experts and UK and European monitoring schemes to help chart butterfly conservation strategies at a global scale.
To serve people with diverse goals and motivations, iBMS will implement a three-tier copyright system. Contributors can opt for either creative commons copyright (CC-BY), embargoed contributions (3-yr or 5-yr embargoes, depending on the timeline in which contributors would like to publish their results, after which the data will move to CC-BY license), and individually copyrighted data (©). Detailed data sharing and copyright policies will be made available on the iBMS website.
iBMS will soon make available resources such as a field identification guide, a mobile app for data entry as well as identification, data templates, a manual, and video demonstrations on methods of butterfly monitoring in India. For data collection, the network will continue the well-tested 30-min count method, which works very well for diverse butterfly habitats from urban gardens to peripheral woodlands or grasslands, and dense forests as well as mountains, and which has been successfully used in India for the past 13 years (https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.09.04.458959, Naik et al., accepted, and https://youtu.be/99RikkgYuf8). Next year, when the majority of Indians are vaccinated against COVID-19, iBMS will also conduct in-person training sessions and data curation drives in numerous cities and towns.
At present, you can register yourself or your group (citizen group, NGO, educational institution; https://bit.ly/2ZnQLSt) to join the network, interact with others on a dedicated as well as associated Facebook groups (see links below), follow us on Twitter, and prepare yourself by watching already available videos (https://youtu.be/99RikkgYuf8, https://youtu.be/1YxG4fFd3To). So join hands, get involved in butterfly monitoring, and become a responsible steward of butterflies, their habitats and conservation!
QUICK REFERENCES AND LINKS:
Register to monitor butterflies through iBMS: https://bit.ly/2ZnQLSt
Website of the iBMS: https://ibms-network.in
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/IBMS.Butterfly, @IBMS.Butterfly
Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/ibms.butterfly
Butterflies of India website: https://www.ifoundbutterflies.org
iNaturalist project: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/indian-butterfly-monitoring-scheme-...
YouTube links of the demonstration of the 30-min count method, and discussion of the method: Experiential Walkthrough with Dr. Krushnamegh Kunte, and BBMI Talk Series : Counting Butterflies by Krushnamegh Kunte, PhD.
Image credit: Nagraj V