Citizen Science and the Monarch Butterfly: The Milkweed Mapping Project

By Daniel Merino

The conservation of monarch butterflies is taking a big step forward with the launching of the Western Monarch and Milkweed Mapping Project. Using citizen scientists, the project aims to solve the mystery of why the western monarch populations are falling so dramatically and protect the species before it is too late.

The fight to save the Monarch Butterflies just got a new weapon. You.

The Western Monarch and Milkweed Mapping Project went live on Feb. 21. A combination of crowdsourcing, internet connectivity, and good old fashioned field work, the project aims to use the power of the public to help answer some big questions about the decline of monarch butterfly populations in Western North America.

The Western Monarch and Milkweed Mapper (WMMM) was designed by a multidisciplinary team of collaborators from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and has launched with a phone app and website that allows everyday people to upload photos and information about monarch butterflies and their main food source, milkweeds.

But why spend valuable grant money on a phone app? Turns out there is much that isn't known about monarchs.

“In the west there are a lot of unanswered questions," says Candace Fallon of the Xerces Society. "Where are they? Where are they breeding? Citizen scientists can help answer these important questions."

With the WMMM, monarch-lovers can put on their field biology hats (labcoats get dirty out in the field) and actively take part in surveys for monarchs and their food in places that would otherwise go unstudied.

By using the app and/or a digital camera and computer, anyone who sees a monarch in any of its stages (butterfly, egg, larva or chrysalis), or its main food source, milkweed, can snap a photo, identify the specimen, and upload it with a geotag to the WMMM database. By using the power of the people, the project can cover vastly more ground than any one team ever could.

“Monarchs make true migrations across three countries. They can find milkweeds in the middle of nowhere. When we are doing surveys for monarchs and milkweeds, 20-30 people is not enough. There is a lot of ground to cover!”

When Fallon is talking about “ a lot of ground,” she is referring to the entirety of the Western United States aside from some high alpine terrain and the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. A lot of ground indeed.

New Terrain
Monarchs were not always thought to be so wide-ranging in their breeding habitat. For example, even to the scientific community, monarchs in the desert is recent news.

Beth Waterbury of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game may well be the person responsible for noticing these insects in places people never thought they would be.

“They have kind of followed me!” Waterbury says. “I was raised in the midwest, I remember going with my family, heading towards the Mississippi and watching the monarch migrations as a kid. Then years later going to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and seeing the overwintering sites there. [They are] ingrained in my childhood memories.”

The West Coast monarchs spend their summer breeding months spread out across the western states, and when winter comes return year after year to a small number of overwintering locations in Central California. Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz being one of them.

Unfortunately, since monitoring at these overwintering sites began 20 years ago, the populations have fallen dramatically.

“I’ve been paying attention to the decline in population of overwintering monarchs. But I was noticing where I live, the east-central part of Idaho, we have showy milkweed in the region. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve ever seen a monarch here! Do we even support a population here in this part of the state?’ ”

Well this thought sent Waterbury digging. Through old records from herbariums, scientific texts, anything she could get her hands on to see if monarchs historically had a presence in Idaho.

She didn't find much in the ways of population counts, but there were some old records of monarchs being at least present.

The Wilder West
Compared to the Eastern US population, which is very well studied, it is somewhat of a mystery where the Western population breeds. With the clues of milkweeds and some dusty ecology papers, Waterbury got a team together and, with a grant from the Xerces Society and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, set out to survey the high deserts of Idaho.

“I was surprised," Waterbury says. "We crank out a lot of monarch butterflies. We are out of the climate zone that many researchers would predict, and yet here they are! We documented two generations of monarchs here in the harsh climate of Northern Idaho last year.”

A piece of the puzzle perhaps?

Populations at overwintering sites in California have fallen 74 percent from the long-term average, and while there are a number of theories about what is causing these declines, not enough information has been gathered to say anything with certainty.

Milkweed plays a critical role in monarch life history, as it is the only plant the larva will eat and therefore the only plant the monarchs lay eggs on. But up until very recently, no one had ever looked at the distribution of milkweed in the west and what populations were being utilized by monarchs.

For this kind of information gap, a crowdsourced citizen science project is the perfect tool. With everyday people out adding information to the project, a massive area can be surveyed much more quickly than any team could ever dream of.

With the help of data collected by the WMMM project’s citizen scientists, Waterbury, Fallon, and a whole team of dedicated researchers hope to make progress towards discovering what is causing the decline of this incredible insect.

“We are just at the tip of the iceberg right now in understanding what is driving that decline," Waterbury says. "There are indications that it could be decline of the milkweed in the landscape, it could be decline of habitat in overwintering sites. There's a lot of coastal development in California destroying that habitat. We can't really say [what is causing the decline] in the west.”

It seems we are on the right track though. Entering the second year of the study, and now employing the WMMM, Waterbury, Fallon and the rest of their teams are hoping that new data can color in the map about monarch and milkweed distribution and shine some light the problems these creatures face.

While being a part of the WMMM project is important, both scientists agreed that more personal actions can also have a powerful effect.

Be Part of the Solution
“The ways to help monarchs are really simple," Fallon says, "and they're things folks can do: Provide safe habitat with milkweed and the proper nectar plants that bloom when the monarchs are around.”

In coastal California, the monarchs may not be breeding but after long winters in near hibernation, having a good supply of nectar plants for them to feed on as they begin their incredible migrations is a huge help to any individual.

Waterbury takes a more political stance.

“If people are feeling they really want to commit, just protecting the overwintering areas and getting involved is important. Writing your county supervisors to let them know that you value this resource and as a citizen of that county, you want to see the government protect the species. That type of engagement is necessary.”

Faced with population losses of nearly 75 percent, the recent radical shift in the federal government's stances on the environment and climate change, one would expect a little doom and gloom from these scientists on the front lines. The opposite is true.

“The actions that people take on behalf of monarchs are going to beneficially impact lots of other species, on up through the food web. I actually feel very positive about them being around for the future. I think they’ll be there.”

With the number of people participating in the WMMM project increasing daily, people taking to the streets in defense of the environment, and milkweeds appearing in front yards nationwide, Waterbury may be right.

Note for Readers in Santa Cruz:
We are lucky enough here in Santa Cruz to host a number of overwintering locations, Natural Bridges being the most well known. Seeing a monarch in or directly nearby these locations, while always exciting, isn't relevant data for the mapping project. Locations of milkweeds, and more importantly any signs of breeding; meaning eggs, caterpillars, or chrysalises, are invaluable though; so please keep your eyes open for our tiny little friends in your gardens and around town.

Homepage photograph: Monarch butterfly at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz by Richard Masoner — CC BY-SA 2.0


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