|The Monarch Science Partnership is developing tools and information|
so we can better help monarchs,
like this caterpillar, right here, right now.Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS.
Have you ever turned over a milkweed leaf to find a tiny monarch egg or caterpillar during the late spring and summer? Even the most veteran of biologists can’t help but be filled with excitement upon a discovery like this. It’s fascinating.
Finding an egg like this, in a northern state like Minnesota, is especially moving when you realize how far it’s parents traveled to make the next generation of monarchs possible. Traveling more than 2,000 miles to reach their overwintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico, monarchs then fly north again in the spring. Sadly though, experiences like this are becoming increasing rare, but we have been pulling together with others who care about monarchs to hopefully reverse this trend.
Monarch egg on common milkweed. Monitoring monarch eggs will help scientists better understand the monarch's lifecycle and how we can help this butterfly.
One focus of this science partnership is to create monarch monitoring guidelines. Monitoring monarch - at each of its life stages - and milkweed over time will tell us how monarchs are doing and how we can adapt our work.
This butterfly milkweed was found at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. As this young plant matures, it will help monarch butterflies passing through the area by providing nectar and a place to lay eggs.
Photos by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS.
Monarchs inspire us
A handful of distinguished researchers have dedicated their lives to studying monarchs and yet, many mysteries remain. Until 1975, scientists were bewildered by the flocks of butterflies migrating each fall and returning each spring. No one knew where they spent the winter months. This was a mystery until 1976 when Dr. Fred Urquhart discovered the monarchs at their overwintering grounds in Mexico.
There are still modern-day monarch mysteries - or partial mysteries at least. For example, we still don’t know exactly how and why monarchs know when to migrate, but we think their guiding light is some combination of temperature and daylength. Their internal compass seems to be oriented based on the position of the sun in the sky and a climate unique to Mexico’s oyamel fir forests.
As you can see, this iconic insect has inspired several biologists to study them over the years. We know a lot more than we did 40 years ago, yet not all of our monarch questions have been answered.
Monarchs are in trouble
Here’s what we do know. The monarch butterfly is one of North America’s most recognizable insects and recently their populations have declined. Habitat loss, increasing pesticide use, climate change, extreme weather events, parasites and disease have all contributed to this decline. Once plentiful across parts of North America, their decline indicates a problem for pollinators on a landscape level. So this problem is much larger than one insect.
Solutions rest with all of us
In response to a declining population and a call to action, we joined together with partners, old and new, to learn more about this inspiring insect. Our focused response to helping this butterfly, using the best available science is the Monarch Conservation Science Partnership.
The Science Partnership is an array of scientific experts from U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Minnesota - Monarch Lab, Monarch Joint Venture, universities across the nation, our state partners and Monarch Watch. Together, we are crossing all sorts of geopolitical boundaries to build our scientific capacity, so we can help monarch butterflies and other pollinators. As we have learned more about monarchs, our conservation actions have become more effective. Each of our organizations, individually, have been making strides in monarch conservation. For example, in 2015 alone, our U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists restored or enhanced more than 200,000 acres of habitat to benefit monarchs and pollinators. Together, we can make even more positive change for monarchs.
The Science Partnership is developing tools for people who manage butterfly and pollinator habitat, tools like the milkweed calculator. It allows researchers, municipal planners and land managers the ability to anticipate the number of actual milkweeds currently on the landscape.
"The milkweed calculator helps us explore different scenarios for habitat restoration,” explains said Ryan Drum, wildlife biologist and monarch science lead for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “By understanding the current situation and how it compares to our desired targets, this tool helps us prioritize where we work and how to best restore monarch habitat, and can be used by people across the country,” continued Drum.
This Science Partnership is unlike the others in its class, because it allows for innovation, like this modeling tool, and takes the best available science from across all the organizations into consideration. It is helping us to swiftly create the best information and develop tools so that people around the country can make smart decisions about where and how to create habitat today, not five years down the road. The science is translated immediately into on-the-ground monarch conservation practices, and we are mobilizing resources and sharing the results of the Science Partnership broadly, for the greater good of the monarch.
With the Science Partnership exploring some of the remaining monarch mysteries, we can better manage habitat for monarchs and other pollinators, with a focus on providing immediate relief from some threats, particularly habitat loss.
Providing enough milkweed and habitat to help monarchs rebound and remain at healthy levels is an enormous task. To save them, we need to work together, and we need to do it now. No single group of people can go it alone. You can help by planting a garden or becoming a citizen scientist.
With the monarch’s range touching three countries and compounding threats to their health helping the monarch is and will continue to be, challenging and complex. The Monarch Science Conservation Partnership has moved forward, full-steam ahead to ensure everyone has the chance to find monarch eggs on nearby milkweed plants and be inspired.
Monarchs journey all the way from the Northwoods of Minnesota to the oyamel forests in central Mexico where they spend the winter each year. Come spring, they fly north again to the Southern U.S. where the next generation of monarchs is born. The Science Partnership is hoping to learn more about the migration so we can best support their habitat needs along the way.