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  • Writer's pictureJeanne McRight

Butterfly, butterfly, who are you?

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

Text and photos by Peeter Poldre


As this piece is a follow-up to last month's “Photographing Butterflies”, I am biased that accurate identification usually requires a good photographic image. For those who wish to use only their eyes (with or without binoculars), I would still advise starting with a good local website, such as The Butterflies of Ontario. It also has recommendations for field guidebooks. In addition, anyone embarking upon butterfly identification should visit the Butterfly families section of the website and peruse all five families of butterflies – skippers, swallowtails, whites/sulphurs. gossamer wings and brushfoot – and the accompanying superb photos by Rick Cavasin.

One will quickly see that even within a family, there are many “look-very-similar” species that will require careful analysis.

As a comparison, for those interested in birds, think of the numerous kinds of sparrows! The attached photos illustrate how similar some species may appear if seen without closer observation.



My next identification step is uploading the image to iNaturalist, a free-registration international website. It is a social network of naturalists and citizen scientists that since 2017 has added an automated species identification function, essentially an application of artificial intelligence that uses a vast database of images to provide suggestions, often in rank order, as to the likely species of the butterfly. If the computer model cannot identify a species, it will at least suggest a genus or family.


Once you have uploaded the image, along with the date and the location, other iNaturalists are able to offer commentary, either agreeing with the suggestion or suggesting alternatives. In the latter case, the observer will often provide detailed comments on why the alternative should be considered. In essence, iNaturalist provides one with unparalleled access to expertise in identifying butterflies.


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