Monarch Annotation Project

While we're finishing out fall semester, I'm starting to plan what to do with my students in spring. I'd love to incorporate iNaturalist into class somehow, but spring is a challenging season for observations (winter weather keeping a lot of plants and critters dormant until shortly before finals). So I've been thinking about annotation projects that can be done with already existing observations that would also work as a homework assignment or snow day activity. So far, I've come up with this list of guidelines for such projects:

  • make use of observations already uploaded to iNat
  • suitable for beginners (no steep learning curve)
  • don't require students to make identifications
  • have a reasonable time limit (e.g. 3 hours to gather data)
  • could be split up to work as group projects for student teams
  • obtain results for discussion and further analysis

I like to try things out before using them in class, so I figured I would give the assignment to myself and pretend to be a student. Since I plan on focusing on phenology annotations in my Botany course, I wanted to pick something as a "pilot project" that isn't necessarily plant-focused to avoid basically doing the homework for my students. I want them to get curious about plants and design a cool project that they can own! Therefore, I picked the monarch butterfly for a proof-of-concept study and decided to annotate life stages. I think this is very similar to looking at plant phenology as it should be just as easy for a student to recognize e.g. a plant in bloom as it would be to tell butterflies and caterpillars apart. Additionally, it is a very iconic and easily recognized creature that gets ID'd very quickly and accurately by the community.

To demonstrate their understanding of the scientific method, students should start with a question to provide the motivation for collecting data. In my case of the monarchs, I've been curious for a while how their appearance here in the mountains compares to other places off the mountains. I rarely see any before mid summer. Why is that? My hypothesis was that the monarchs coming up from Mexico in spring avoid the colder mountains at first, but then later show up here to breed over the summer before the fall migration back south. Based on this, I would predict a lack of adult monarchs in the mountains in spring, but a bump of caterpillars for late summer and a bump for the adults migrating through in fall. The objective was to annotate life stages throughout the year across several locations to be able to test this hypothesis and compare the data between mountain and non-mountain areas.

I started with annotating life stages (egg, larva = caterpillar, pupa = chrysalis, adult = butterfly) for NC observations and indeed found a low number of butterflies in spring compared to summer and fall. Not quite content yet, I expanded west to include three more states crossing the migration path around the same latitude - Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. I decided to stick with the same latitude since decreasing day-length is a major trigger for the migration in fall. Adding annotations for these took a couple of hours, but I think for a team of four students this would still be within the scope of time investment for a lab class project by splitting up the work to have each student tackle annotations for one state. I then took screenshots of the graphs for the annual distribution of life stages for all four states and used PowerPoint to create a summary of the results.

Monarch life cycle stages observed across the year for the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. NC is further split into Mountains, Piedmont, and Coastal Plain. Graphs on top of each other were adjusted in height to match the scales on the Y-axis for comparison across states and NC regions. (Note: I did not pay attention to scale the graphs for the regions to the states as well.) Vertical lines indicate peak observation times of butterflies in April, August, and October.

So the big question: Did this result in something interesting to discuss in class? You bet! Look at that neat bump of migrating butterflies in April in OK and AR that's basically missing in TN and NC. The 'central flyway hypothesis' for spring migration confirmed! Then there's a bump in adults showing up in August in NC, TN, and to some extent even AR, that's completely missing in OK, lending support to the idea of an eastward migration of butterflies into and across the Southern Appalachian Mountains in summer. Numbers peak again in October, consistent with the fall migration south.

Students could search for literature to expand the discussion, e.g. comparison with publications based on citizen science data from Journey North (two flyways revealed), or the study by Miller et al. that found monarchs crossing the Appalachians to the east coast in early July north of the area annotated here. One follow-up question to ask could be whether the bump in August in NC/TN represents monarchs raised locally or coming from the west or south or maybe even north. Students could suggest experiments that could be done, informed by the studies listed above and the Monarch Watch tagging program.

Additionally, there's the opportunity to discuss observer bias in citizen science projects. E.g. one would expect more monarchs migrating in fall through OK and AR than NC, yet the peak is higher in NC. How come? Are there more observers in NC than OK? Closer inspection of the observations in question reveals that there are a good number of fall roosts with dozens or even hundreds of butterflies observed in the Midwest, but basically none of those in NC. Therefore, the number of observations underestimates the total number of butterflies being observed in Oklahoma during October. Further, eggs and caterpillars are likely under-observed in general due to the difficulty in finding these to make observations in the first place.

One thing that might prove challenging from an instructor perspective is the difficulty of keeping track of annotations to confirm that students are doing their homework, and providing quality control for those from the teacher side. Unlike for identifications with leader boards for species and locations, there are no stats available for annotations. I haven't found a way yet to search for annotations made by a particular user/student. Maybe there is a URL hack for this, but I haven't been able to figure it out yet. Currently, I'm thinking of having the students summarize their results in the form of a term paper listing exactly what they did on iNat in the methods so I can follow up on it. There is also no way currently to correct a wrong annotation (there's a feature request) short of messaging the observer and/or annotator, as I think those are the only two people who could remove an annotation made in error. I don't think iNat notifies you when someone annotates your observations, so a lot of errors are probably not even getting noticed.

Overall, I'm pretty excited about the possibilities here and look forward to seeing what projects my students will come up with. I think the annotation features on iNat are still way underused and could be a neat way to have students engage with observations of interest to them and add value to iNaturalist by adding or improving data.

Posted on December 13, 2022 09:17 PM by annkatrinrose annkatrinrose


Nice work :-) This will make a great learning module!

Here's another research question for your students: In Tiarella, is stolon production seasonal, and if so, how does its timeline relate to the flowering season?

I'll skip the motivation, but to answer that question, your students will want to utilize both annotations and observation fields. The latter have the advantage (or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it) of being both customizable and editable.

Posted by trscavo 9 months ago

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