Friday 5: Report Your Monarch Sightings!

It occurs to me that although my job involves connecting people to citizen science projects, I’ve done next to nothing to promote citizen science on my very own blog apart from my own project. That changes today! It’s Friday, so it’s time for Friday 5, citizen science style!

I’ve found that when I talk to people about citizen science, there are two major criteria that make projects attractive to the majority of potential participants: they’re easy and they involve something that the general public finds appealing. Guess what a lot of people find very appealing? Butterflies! Monarchs seem to be especially popular, and there are good reasons why. Monarchs are big, showy, and beautiful insects. They’re poisonous, so they’ve got just a hint of danger about them. They also migrate thousands of miles each year from the northern US into a very restricted part of Mexico. You all probably know by now that I tend to be prejudiced against butterflies, but even I’ll admit that monarchs are pretty darned cool. Not surprisingly there are several citizen science projects that focus on monarchs to some degree, projects that tap into that general love for monarchs to do some great science. If you see monarchs in your area, please consider participating in one of these 5 projects:

Monarch Larva Monitoring Project

MLMP is a little more involved than some of the other citizen science projects dealing with monarchs, but I did this once a week all summer and found it very rewarding. To participate, you find a patch of milkweed with 50 or more plants and monitor the patch weekly for monarchs. You count every egg, larva, and adult you see following the protocol, record the data on a datasheet, and send it off on the MLMP website. If you want to get even more involved, there are five total projects wrapped up into MLMP and you can participate in as many you’d like. This project has gone a long time and it’s produced some excellent results that are available for all to see. Everyone knows more about breeding habits of monarchs and seasonal shifts in their reproduction because citizen scientists have monitored fields in their areas and contributing data through MLMP. Plus, what’s not to love about getting outside and looking for caterpillars?

Have you ever come across a monarch with a little ID sticker attached to its wing? If so, you saw a butterfly that was being tracked by Monarch Watch! This project tracks the migration of the monarchs into Mexico every year by sending citizen scientists out to tag butterflies. To participate, you order tags from Monarch Watch, collect monarchs, affix tags to their wings, record some data about the individuals tagged, and then release the butterflies. Monarch Watch scientists can then track the progress of individual butterflies as they move from the US into Mexico. It’s a fun project and lets you handle the butterflies while you learn about migrations. I love tagging butterflies!

Journey North also tracks monarch migrations, but it does so in an easier, much less time intensive and hands on manner: participants simply report sightings of butterflies in their area. What makes Journey North fun is that you can track the southward progress of the monarchs on their website on a weekly basis to see how far the butterflies have traveled at any given time. You can then follow the progress of the return trip north in the spring. Journey North has a smart phone app, so submitting data is incredibly easy – a few taps on your screen and you’ve helped track the progress of the migrations. The project’s simplicity and easy to use web and smart phone interfaces also make this a great project to do with young kids.

Like other animals, there are many things out there that make monarchs sick. Among them is a protozoan parasite that impacts their ability to survive by inhibiting normal growth. To understand how widespread these parasites are in the wild, MonarchHealth asks participants collect samples from adult butterflies. Sampling is fairly easy. After you catch a butterfly, you use a sticky tab (they’ll send them to you!) to collect a sample from the abdomen, stick the tab onto a card with some info about the butterfly, and then send the sample off for analysis. The project leaders are great about keeping everyone informed of their progress and provide personalized information to each participant to let them know the results of their specific samples. This is another good hands on project – and really fun to do!

Nature’s Notebook is the web and smart phone based interface for the National Phenology Network. I love Nature’s Notebook and use it often on my iPhone to record sightings of seasonal shifts in several plant and animal species. While the project doesn’t specifically focus on monarchs like the other projects, this is another very easy way to help scientists learn more about monarchs. Like Journey North, a few taps on a screen or a few clicks of a mouse are all it takes to send your sightings of eggs, larvae, adults, and migrating adults off to NPN. Nature’s Notebook also has some great visualization tools and educational resources available, which make this a really fun project to participate in with tours, in classrooms, in homeschool groups, etc. This summer, I found myself pulling my iPhone out each week in our MLMP milkweed patch, then tapping away and sending valuable data off to needy scientists.  It can take less than a minute to send the data off – truly quick and easy!

That should get you all started. The monarchs are on the move right now, so get out there and collect some data!


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