‘One tough little butterfly’: Monarch Watch uses citizen science to track butterflies from Canada to Mexico

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A monarch butterfly rests on a sunflower at Britt's Farm. (File photo by Katelin Woods | Collegian Media Group)

As the leaves change and the wind chills, you might have noticed an influx of bright orange, black-and-white spotted butterflies dancing in the breeze.

Every year, monarch butterflies embark on their long journey through the heartland of the country, and some Kansas biologists have been working to understand just how they do it.

Orley “Chip” Taylor, University of Kansas professor emeritus in ecology and evolutionary biology, said the inspiration for the monarch tagging program came from teaching an experimental field ecology graduate course.

“As I came up with projects, I began to realize that very little was really known about the monarch migration,” Taylor said.

He wanted the program to tackle larger ecological questions surrounding the migration, migration dynamics, population growth and regional survival rates. Thus, Monarch Watch was born.

In 1992, Taylor started the Monarch Watch tagging program with the help of Brad Williamson, a fellow KU professor. What started with a handful of people in Lawrence now spans across the continent, tracking the monarchs’ path all the way from Canada to Mexico.

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Tagging butterflies allows scientists to see cause and effect relationships that go back to the previous year, such as drought and habitat loss. Using the data gathered from the tagging program, Taylor recently published a paper refuting previous theories that the population was declining as a function of migration.

“The tagging data shows very clearly, there has been no increase in mortality of tagged butterflies over the last 15, 20 years,” he said.

The larger downward trend in population, Taylor said, is due to habitat loss, largely associated with agricultural intensification and the consequent loss of milkweed.

“We’re losing about two million acres a year by my estimates, and it’s not clear that we’re restoring two million acres a year,” he said. “So if that’s the case, we’re still losing ground.”

Taylor started working to combat this loss in 2005 with the Monarch Waystation program, encouraging farmers and landowners to create small habitats for butterflies called “waystations.” These plots ensure monarchs, and other pollinators, have access to resources as they travel. While it started very slowly, Taylor said the program took off, and now has over 30,000 Monarch Waystation habitats registered it in five different countries.

The Master Gardener Program at Douglas County, through K-State Research and Extension, helps maintain Monarch Waystation No. 1 in Lawrence, which is “kind of an attraction on campus,” in Taylor’s words.

"Chip" Taylor, an insect ecologist and professor at the University of Kansas, founded Monarch Watch in 1992. (Courtesy photo by Orley "Chip" Taylor)
"Chip" Taylor, an insect ecologist and professor at the University of Kansas, founded Monarch Watch in 1992. (Photo courtesy of Orley "Chip" Taylor)

“That’s one aspect of what we do, is promote people individually acting in a way that is environmentally responsible by creating habitats for monarch butterflies and pollinators on their own property,” Taylor said. “It’s a symbol of what we need to do to maintain what we like about the things that visit our gardens.”

With Kansas right in the middle of their migration path, the Flint Hills serve as a major traffic-way for traveling monarchs, Brad Williamson said.

Brad and his wife Carol Williamson are both retired from teaching now, but they still tag butterflies together for Monarch Watch.

Though they live in Lawrence, Carol and Brad visit the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area regularly as docents.

“Not many field trips this year, but we still go out and walk the prairie and put on our docent badges if we do,” Carol said.

When the couple was tagging at Konza Prairie recently, Carol said they saw thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of monarch butterflies.

“It was amazing, I mean we’ve seen that before, but it’s inspiring,” she said. “It’s exciting when you’re there seeing so much migration happening. With the Konza Prairie … I think by looking at an individual species like the monarch, it helps to highlight the importance of the prairie.”

Though the butterflies may look delicate, Brad said their wings are tougher than they seem.

“These are really strong wings. They can fly on half a wing and still make it – it’s amazing,” Brad said.

“They’re one tough little butterfly,” Carol said.

Though the butterflies can tolerate the handling associated with tagging, volunteers are still careful when they capture them.

“The other thing is, we didn’t count on is just how much this butterfly would touch the public’s emotional heartstrings,” Brad said. “It was an amazing thing to witness.”

While tagging for this season is mostly done, Brad encouraged people to keep an eye out for the butterflies in the spring.

“It’s an amazing phenomenon,” Brad said. “It’s a phenomenon that’s difficult to say goodbye to if we lose.”

In a time with a great need for citizen literacy, Carol said, learning science by doing is an important way to share, not only the research and conservation program, but the education about an organism and its environment.

“[Monarch Watch has] truly has become one of the premier international citizen science projects,” Carol said. “Chip is retired from teaching, but he’ll never retire from the Monarch Watch project.”

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My name is Rebecca Vrbas. I’m the culture editor at the Collegian and a junior in journalism and mass communications. My hobbies include obsessing over an ever-expanding pool of musicals and cats (not the musical). I love writing because of the infinite intricacy of language, as well as its power to cultivate a sense of community through sharing experiences.