Tagging Monarchs for Science

monarchs-caughtFor those of you who don’t know, I work at a natural history museum as the head of citizen science.  I oversee the collection and entry of data for about 40 citizen science projects at my museum’s field station, do a ton of education based on citizen science projects, create my own citizen science research projects, and help other people create and/or promote their projects as part of the overall program at the museum.  It’s a ton of fun and I absolutely love what I do, but I especially like it when my current life as a natural history museum citizen science person and my past life as an entomology researcher combine.  It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that one of my favorite projects to participate in every year is Monarch Watch.

Monarchs have been a focus of citizen science projects for a long time.  The first major monarch project was called the Insect Migration Association and was started by a pair of Canadian entomologists named Fred and Norah Urquhart.  For 40 years, they tracked movements by gluing small paper tags to monarch wings and enlisted the help of enthusiasts throughout Canada and the US to track where they went by reporting the tag numbers back to the Urquharts.  Thanks to their efforts, in 1975 another couple who participated in the project, Ken and Catalina Brugger, tracked the monarchs through Mexico and eventually found their overwintering grounds in the oyamel fir forests in central Mexico.  It’s a pretty miraculous story, but also one that could never have happened if the Urquharts didn’t enlist the help of many other people.  It’s a great example of a citizen science project, and one that worked amazingly well in spite of getting its start long before the convenience of the internet made this sort of research so much easier.

tagged-monarch-before-releaseThe Urquhart’s project eventually became Monarch Watch under Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas and the process is essentially the same.  Now we use stickers instead of paper tags that need to be glued on, but you still have to catch the monarch, handle it gently while you affix the tag, record the data (date, location, sex of the butterfly, wild or reared, and the tag number), and release it. Monarch Watch does a survey in Mexico each year to look for tags and eventually reports back to the public about where monarchs were tagged and which ones made it all the way to Mexico.

I really enjoy participating in Monarch Watch.  I’ve gotten my process down well so that I can catch, tag, photograph, and release a monarch in under 30 seconds. As much as I like tagging monarchs myself (I spend many hours every year walking up and down the dirt road at the field station catching and tagging monarchs), I think I might actually enjoy teaching other people how to do it even more.

taqged monarch feeding on nectarI’ve been catching butterflies a long time.  I started my insect collection when I was about 11 years old and I’ve handled hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies.  While I adore monarchs and think that tagging them is a wholly worthwhile experience, I don’t think I get the same sort of rush from it that the people I teach do.

Most of the people who come to the monarch tagging programs I host have never held a butterfly before.  Many are terrified of hurting them and some people refuse to hold them.  They’ll watch me tag the monarchs they catch instead.  Most of these people have been told that touching a butterfly will rub scales off the wings (true) or kill it (unlikely if you’re handling them carefully) and worry about hurting them. They also worry they’ll get the tag in the wrong place or break a wing vein.  I don’t pressure people to tag the monarchs themselves if they show any hesitation, but I usually ask to release the butterfly by setting it on their arm.  The way their faces light up when they see a tagged monarch flap its wings and take off on its way to Mexico is amazing.  It is usually a look of pure, unadulterated joy, a rare moment of pure peace and tranquility.

Other people want to dive right in and do the tagging themselves.  They will bring the first monarch they catch over to me and have me show them how to get the butterfly out of the net.  They’ll usually put the first tag on themselves and will take the butterfly from me when I pass it to them.  These people release them from their hands, then rush off to catch another one so they can do the whole process again themselves. They might be a little more focused on the hunt and a little less worried about hurting the butterflies than other people, but the moment the monarch leaps into the air from their hands, they get the same beatific look on their faces as everyone else.  It’s simply amazing to watch.

There’s something so awe-inspiring about handling a small, fragile animal knowing that it might fly all the way to Mexico, overwinter high in the mountains, and then fly all the way back to the US.  I suspect that when people release a tagged monarch, they form a sort of connection to the migration.  Perhaps they think that part of them will travel with the butterfly as it completes its amazing journey.  That this monarch you hold in your hands might be the same butterfly that researchers record when they survey the monarchs in Mexico – well, that’s a truly awesome thought.  I think this idea is the source of that joyous smile as people watch the butterflies fly away, but I never ask.  I’d hate to ruin the moment for them by asking them to dissect their feelings immediately after having what is clearly an amazing experience.

tagged monarchI’ll keep tagging monarchs and I’ll keep teaching other people to do it because I love it.  Since I moved to North Carolina in 2012, I have generally tagged between 6 and 15 monarchs each year.  This year has been a magnificent monarch year at the field station: I’ve tagged 26 so far.  That’s 26 butterflies out of millions that I held in my own two hands that will attempt to fly to another country.  Only time will tell how many of them make it, but I wish them the best of luck on their journey.

 

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

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Tagging Monarchs (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Hey everyone!!  I know I’ve been offline for ages, but things are finally slowing down at work enough that I can get back into blogging at least semi-regularly.  It’s been so long since I last posted that I have a massive backlog of photos.  It was hard to choose just one today!  But here’s what I decided to share:

Monarch with tag

Monarch with tag

We tag monarchs for Monarch Watch at work and this was the last one we tagged this year.  I got many people involved in the tagging this year and we had a fun couple of months chasing monarchs around the grounds with nets.  However,  this is serious work too as the tags we put on the wings give monarch researchers an amazing ability to track individual monarchs during their migration and see how many actually make it to Mexico.  I won’t be able to look him up for a while and see how far he got (there’s unfortunately a big lag between when you submit data and when you can see the data for your butterflies on the website), but I hope little UMT 654 makes it to the Mexican mountains!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Update on Part 3

The last few weeks…  Well, they’ve been really busy.  REALLY busy.  I am rather happy when I get to sleep at a decent hour so I can get up early the next morning and start another long day full of many, many activities.  It’s fun and I absolutely love my job, but the busy schedule has been interfering with my blogging schedule something fierce!  Tonight I finally had time to sit down and write my third year-end report for my dragonfly swarm data only to realize that I’d left all the notes I’ve been working on for weeks in a bag I intentionally left at work!  Hopefully I’ll get that report online tomorrow.  In the meantime, here’s a photo that I took of an exhibit at the museum where I work that’s sort of related, insofar as this is another insect that makes a massive migration along about the same paths as the dragonflies each year:

Monarchs

Monarchs

These aren’t live monarchs (which would be SO cool), but the exhibit is representative of what the overwintering sites in Mexico look like at this time of year.  All those monarchs are sitting down there now, millions of them in the oyamel trees in only a handful of locations in Mexico.  They’ll start heading north in a few short months.  It’s such an amazing biological spectacle!  I really hope I get to see the overwintering grounds in person someday.  From all the photos and all the video I’ve ever seen of these places, I know it would be a life changing, miraculous experience that I would never forget.

If you haven’t heard about it yet, there’s an IMAX 3D movie out now called Flight of the Butterflies that documents the annual migration of the monarchs.  It is supposed to be superb, so I am hoping I’ll be able to catch it at the local IMAX theater before it is ousted in favor of something newer.  Has anyone seen it yet?  I’d love to hear some reviews if you have!

Here’s hoping I’ll get the third part of the report up tomorrow!  If I could only remember to bring my notes home…

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

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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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Monitoring for Monarchs

At work we participate in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, a great citizen science project that aims to track monarch reproduction and populations through space and time.  We have a great group of volunteers that help us monitor, so each Wednesday we make a quick trip through the milkweed patch to look for monarch eggs, larvae, and adults.  Look at them go!

Monitoring for monarchs

Monitoring for monarchs

If you happen to be in the Raleigh, NC area and are interested in learning how to participate in MLMP, one of my coworkers and I will be hosting an MLMP training workshop at Prairie Ridge this Friday from 8am-noon.  We’d love to have you!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth