USGS data - Shuey-etc.

Robert Kriegel kriegelr at
Wed Jan 31 15:40:23 EST 2001

At the outset I would like to say that the USGS web sites for butterflies
and moths are very useful.  When I get questions from the general public,
these sites are usually the first places I suggest for them to look to
answer their questions.  Face it, these are the most comprehensive sites on
U.S. Lepidoptera that are currently available on the web.  Unfortunately,
the distinction between science and non-science has become blurred.
Last spring I received a letter from a group referring to itself as the
Michigan Atlas Survey Project.  The group was requesting that I submit
butterfly data to their survey.  They were only interested in data from the
last five years and visual observations were OK.  No vouchers or
independent examination of my determinations were required.  In the first
paragraph of the letter they stated that this data would be used as part of
a project to replace Opler's 1984 atlas and would be added to the website.
They were particularly interested in poorly documented counties and early
and late flight dates.  They also stated that the data would be published
in Michigan Birds and Natural History Magazine, a publication of the
Michigan Audubon Society.  The letter indicated that I was receiving this
request because I am a member of the Lepidopterists Society and, although
they had received good participation in their project, very little help in
Michigan had come from Lep Soc members.  I did not respond to the request.
The Michigan Atlas Survey Project is not associated in any way with the
Michigan Lepidoptera Survey.  The former is a project of the Michigan
Audubon Society.  The latter is a project of the Michigan Entomological
Society that requires specimen or photographic vouchers and strongly
asserts that independent verifiability of determinations is a key element
of scientific endeavors.  The former atlas uses county level sightings.
The latter contains site specific records for 54 sensitive species that are
being used in conservation, phenology and detailed life history research.
If you look at the 'State Coordinators'  page on the 'Butterflies of the
U.S.' web site you will see coordinators for both Michigan projects listed.
 The USGS project accepts observations from both sources and, to the best
of my knowledge, does not distinguish between the two in its publication
Last night I picked up my copy of Opler & Krizek (1984) and re-read the
introductory portions.  In his acknowledgements Opler indicated that the
distribution maps, host and nectar source records, etc. were a compilation
of information from over 100 'collectors'.  The list of contributors is a
whos who of North American lepidopterology.  I might add that this
reference sits on my bookshelf between Howe's _Butterflies of North
America_ and Layberry's _Butterflies of Canada_.  I am not sure where I
will house the revision to Opler's Atlas once its published.  If I can't
distinguish between scientific data and visual sightings on the
distribution maps, perhaps it will be better suited to the coffee table,
next to Birds & Blooms magazine.
In my opinion, purely visual observations of Lepidoptera are not scientific
data because they are not verifiable.  I provide three examples for your
consideration.  First, for those of you who remember the discussion last
fall about a possible visual sighting of the Regal Fritillary, Speyeria
idalia, at Holiday Beach, Ontario.  If accepted this would have been the
first sighting of the species in Ontario in roughly 20 years.  This winter
I discovered a specimen of Speyeria aphrodite form alcestis from southern
Michigan in my collection.  The underside of this specimen is a dead ringer
for S. idalia.  I would certainly have misidentified the individual in the
field if I only saw the underside.  Second, there have already been
incidents where fleeting visual observations of species outside of their
documented ranges in Michigan have been published in Michigan Birds and
Natural History Magazine.  Because of the methods used, these observations
would not have been accepted as a biological note in either the Michigan
Entomological Society journal or newsletter.  But since they are in print,
they may be picked up and referenced by later work.  In fact, they will
appear in the revision to Opler's Atlas.  As time progresses it will become
more and more difficult to separate scientific fact from published hearsay.
 Finally for the birders on the list, I have in my wanderings seen both
Lawrence's and Brewster's warblers.  I do not have photographs of these
sightings.  Will you accept these sightings as scientific facts and add
them to a distribution map?  Would your opinion change depending on who I
was with when I saw them or exactly where I was?  Would it change if I told
you they were both sighted in the woods south of the vistor center at Point
Pelee during spring warbler migration?  What gives you the right to impose
your discipline's criteria for valid scientific data on my discipline?  And
spare me the moral high ground, I don't buy it.
I am encouraged by the blossoming interest in Lepidoptera that has resulted
from butterfly watching.  However, I am very concerned about the
simultaneous dumbing down of science for mass consumption.  I worry that
truly scientific efforts such as those of the Ohio Lepidopterists may be
lost in a sea of recreational activities.  I am concerned that the best
known nation-wide Lepidoptera survey effort (the USGS Atlas) is including
non-scientific information in its dataset.  I would prefer to see the
federal government spend our money on scientific efforts that could stand
the test of time.  I encourage you to go to the USGS web site
(, drill down in the 'scientific audience' track through
'mapping information' to the national atlas project on the following web page:
After you make maps of per capita income, the location of toxic waste sites
and the distribution of a butterfly species; tell me where to find the
non-science disclaimer that John Shuey suggested.  Some data coordinators
in the USGS atlas project may tell you that this is not a scientific study.
 But I contend the policy makers who use the distribution maps will treat
it like the scientific fact they believe it to be.  Five years from now,
when you try to get funding to collect real scientific data on Lepidoptera
distributions be prepared for a grantor's kind reply, "I'm sorry that work
has already been done; it was funded by the U.S. Geological Survey".
I am reminded of a statement made by one of our Michigan senators a year or
so ago when the U.S. congress was reviewing the budget of the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The senator was adament
that the federal government should get rid of the U.S. Weather Service.  He
felt that we didn't need it any more.  We could all just get our weather
forecasts and storm warnings from the Weather Channel on cable TV.
Obviously, he had no idea where the Weather Channel gets its information.
Bob Kriegel
East Lansing, MI
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