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Monitoring Monarch Migration

Milkweed Seedling by Katherine Phillips, MCBP
Milkweed Seedling by Katherine Phillips, MCBP

Monarchs and Milkweed

Spring is always a great time to turn over a new leaf; a milkweed leaf to be exact! You might be in for a pleasant surprise of a chubby yellow, black, and white striped caterpillars greeting you! This caterpillars mark the return of monarchs to the local area.  These unique caterpillars hatch from small white eggs, laid by the female butterflies, under the poisonous milkweed leaves. They depend on the integration of the milkweed toxins into their bodies to deter predators. After about two weeks of gorging themselves on their pure milkweed diet, they will prepare to transform.

The caterpillar will hang upside down and form its chrysalis whose bright neon-green color will gradually fade to a beautiful jade green. Inside, the caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis as it begins its transition into adulthood. After their life-changing alteration, they emerge, and within hours take to the skies! Some of these beautiful creatures are even destined to travel for thousands of miles to their southern overwintering areas.

Threats to Health and Habitat

The monarch butterfly, with its intrinsic beauty and unique migration, has caught the attention of many individuals, including scientists and citizens alike. Its well-known vibrant orange color framed with black borders and white spots has decorated the summer landscape across North America for generations. They have achieved a great deal of public interest as the official insect or butterfly of seven U.S. States. They link countries with their migratory patterns and influence a complex ecosystem with their presence.

Monarch Butterfly by Liz Wist, MCBP
Monarch Butterfly by Liz Wist, MCBP

Unfortunately, over the past few decades, monarch population has seen a decline. The locations in Mexico where the monarchs reside in the winter have decreased due to habitat loss. In addition, the migratory passageway they once relied on in the USA is disappearing. This habitat loss has occurred during the same time as colony size reduction; however, the full implications are unknown. Increases in development and the use of pesticides have been suspected as causes for population decline.

Citizen or Scientist, We Can All Contribute

We must have a better understanding of this complex biology in order for a powerful conservation effort to take flight. The goal is to not only collect scientific data to be analyzed, but also to yield a general storyline of the monarch. For instance, the main unknown factor that has been debated within the scientific community is the accurate annual migration pattern of the species along the North American continent. This better understanding can lead to an overall appreciation for the intricate nature that the monarch embodies. An approach to creating a positive interaction between human and nature is the practice of citizen science. Citizen science is the use of average citizens, with non-scientific backgrounds, gaining an involved interest in a particular species or area of research, and then playing a role in the collection of data.

Monarch Citizen Science

This collection often occurs through observation, as an important source of information which would otherwise be nearly impossible to study scientifically because of the spatial scope involved. The history of citizen science data is extensive, and the culture and appreciation of biota it has created, is rich. The total number of monarchs tagged in the past 20 years is now approximately two million.

Monarch Viceroy by Kerry Wixted
Monarch Viceroy by Kerry Wixted, DNR

The application of a small, circular, sticker-like tag is placed strategically on the lower wing of the butterfly.  This way, flight pattern is not disrupted, survivability is unaltered, and the tracking number is clearly visible. The tracking number correlates to a record of a butterfly’s information, which can be accessed once the butterfly is recaptured. If the butterfly is recaptured at the end of its migration, the path the butterfly took can revealed!

Many different programs have been initiated in order to aid in the collection of this informative data; Monarch Watch, Journey North, and Monarch Joint Venture! The programs utilize various volunteer bases, adding to the collective knowledge held on this issue. The hope of citizen science is that after participating in the study, the person or group is then motivated to make a change, or at least spread awareness. By having the volunteers track the migration and breeding of the butterfly at such an intimate level they are able to realize their bond, form a relationship with the species, and initiate a lasting connection.

Monarch egg by Anna Letaw
Monarch Egg by Anna Letaw

Impact of Citizen Science

The army of citizen scientists has provided a valued resource of data and information, with which scientists have used to uncover and explain the biology and specifically the complexities of migration to the general public. Use of citizen science in schools and in volunteer programs is a beneficial outlet for all parties. Not only are the volunteers getting involved in a fun activity which connects them to nature but the scientists are dependent on their ability to report honest data on the species.

The citizen science efforts that have been focused on the monarch butterfly are a truly empowering movement, encouraging its participants to become scientists and advocates. Monarch citizen science is a model system for understanding all types of participatory research and the implications that citizen science could become its own field of science is nothing but exciting. We have seen the significance and have provided validity to the movement. Monarch butterfly population decline is currently being carefully monitored and hopefully that will lead to even more impactful change on an international scale.

Citizen Science in the Coastal Bays

For more information on citizen science opportunities, such as the annual Terrapin Survey and iNaturalist, within the Coastal Bays watershed, please visit the MCBP website, or email Liz Wist at lwist@mdcoastalbays.org. To purchase milkweed to plant in the watershed, check out the Lower Shore Land Trust plant sale or the Assateague Coastal Trust plant sale. 

About the Author

Madison Warfield is a former environmental intern with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, a graduate of Salisbury University, and an overall wonderful human.

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