Urban Ecosystems

, Volume 22, Issue 6, pp 1083–1096 | Cite as

Characterizing urban butterfly populations: the case for purposive point-count surveys

  • Bret J. Lang
  • Philip M. Dixon
  • Robert W. Klaver
  • Jan R. ThompsonEmail author
  • Mark P. Widrlechner


Developing effective butterfly monitoring strategies is key to understanding how butterflies interact with urban environments, and, in turn, to developing local conservation practices. We investigated two urban habitat types (public gardens and restored/reconstructed prairies) and compared three survey methods (Pollard transects, purposive point counts, and random point counts) to determine which was most productive for detecting butterflies and assessing family diversity. We conducted 66 butterfly surveys by using each method (198 total) from May through September in 2015 and 2016 at six sites (three public gardens and three prairies) in Ames, Ankeny and Des Moines, Iowa. All survey methods were used on 11 sampling dates at each site. Overall, we observed 2,227 butterflies representing 38 species: 1,076 in public gardens and 1,151 in prairie areas. We used a smaller data set standardized for survey effort, including 1,361 of these sightings, to compare survey methods and habitat types. Although there were no significant differences in number of butterfly sightings between the two habitats, more sightings (798) were documented by using purposive point counts when compared to Pollard transects (297) or random point counts (266) (for both comparisons, p < 0.0001). Occupancy modeling also indicated that purposive point counts were most effective in detecting certain species of butterflies, most notably those within the Pieridae (whites, sulphurs) and Papilionidae (swallowtails). We conclude that public gardens and restored/reconstructed prairies in urban settings can provide important butterfly habitat, and that purposive point-count surveys are most effective for detecting butterflies in these relatively small-scale landscape features.


Urban butterfly habitat Public gardens Restored urban prairies Butterfly survey methods Pollard transects Occupancy modeling for butterflies 



Support for this study was provided by Reiman Gardens, the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and McIntire-Stennis funds. We thank personnel in the Park and Recreation Departments of the Cities of Ames and Des Moines, and at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens, the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, the Nature Conservancy, and Reiman Gardens for allowing access to sites to conduct butterfly surveys. We also thank Julia Schwager, Sarah Rueger, Camille Karnatz, and Stephen Potter for field and laboratory assistance. We appreciate statistical advice from Tyler Harms and additional advice and information provided by Nathan Brockman, Aaron Steil, Kelly Norris, Jim Durbin and Dave Hraha. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the United States Government.

Supplementary material

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Natural Resource Ecology and ManagementIowa State UniversityIowaUSA
  2. 2.Department of StatisticsIowa State UniversityIowaUSA
  3. 3.U.S. Geological SurveyIowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research UnitIowaUSA
  4. 4.Department of Horticulture and Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal BiologyIowa State UniversityIowaUSA

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