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Social (Media) Butterflies

By Office of Communication Services    Published on 05/01/2014 More stories >>

William Haines communes with a Kamehameha butterfly perched on a ma¯maki plant.

William Haines communes with a Kamehameha butterfly perched on a ma¯maki plant.

Forget putting up paper flyers for lost valuables—entomologists William Haines and Daniel Rubinoff are using Facebook and smartphone apps to search for and recover an even more prized quarry. Their Pulelehua Project, funded by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, is a citizen science initiative that encourages the public—especially hikers with smartphones—to report and hopefully photograph the elusive Kamehameha butterfly, Hawai‘i’s state insect, so researchers can map its population throughout the state.

The Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea) is endemic to Hawai‘i, meaning it lives nowhere else in the world. Although it has been historically found on all the main Hawaiian islands, it’s disappearing from areas where it used to be common. “It’s one of only two native butterflies that we have in Hawai‘i,” Dr. Haines said. “It’s a component of the biodiversity that would really be a shame to lose.”

Dan Rubinoff displays
pulelehua look- alikes on the project website.

Dan Rubinoff displays pulelehua look- alikes on the project website.

The project offers a website and Facebook page where the public can learn how to identify the Kamehameha butterfly, or pulelehua, in all its developmental life stages, as well its favorite plants and habitats. The caterpillars feast on the leaves of the ma¯maki plant, or Hawaiian nettle, which is found in remote areas like high- elevation forests or the very back of deep valleys. This is why the scientists need help from those who venture into these places. The butterflies and caterpillars should not be collected, since they are protected as native wildlife; a photo is all that’s needed to document them.

Anyone who spots one can submit their information to the project. Interested butterfly chasers can also check on the most up-to-date number of confirmed sightings on each island. “Every single person that gives us data makes that picture clearer and clearer,” said Dr. Rubinoff. “Once we have a really clear picture of how it’s doing, we’ll be able to identify the threats that it’s facing and help it face those threats more effectively.”

And getting the public actively involved has already paid off. The project has received over 100 submissions, leading to confirmations on five islands. These include residential areas of Windward O‘ahu and low elevations on Moloka‘i, where Dr. Haines and Dr. Rubinoff did not expect the butterfly to be found. It turns out the butterfly may have more friends on Facebook than anyone knew, and they may be a key to its survival.

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