The puzzling migratory monarch–and using it to teach science

I’ve mentioned frequently how my kids are fascinated with bugs and things creepy-crawly, whether it’s spiders, giant moths, or butterflies. On that topic, via Bitch PhD comes this article from yesterday’s New York Times on monarchs, their endangered habitat, and what just about anyone can do to help out.

(More after the jump…)

Pinching a bright orange butterfly in one hand and an adhesive tag the size of a baby’s thumbnail in the other, the entomologist bent down so his audience could watch the big moment.

“You want to lay it right on this cell here, the one shaped like a mitten,” the scientist, Orley R. Taylor, told the group, a dozen small-game hunters, average age about 7 and each armed with a net. “If you pinch it for about three seconds, the tag will stay on for the life of the butterfly, which could be as long as nine months.”

Taylor is at the University of Kansas and runs the Monarch Watch program, which includes monarch tagging events in various states in the country.

The tagging event for families here was part of a much larger effort. Dr. Taylor gives out more than 150,000 numbered tags each year to butterfly enthusiasts from the Rockies to the Atlantic (West Coast monarchs have separate migratory routes). In winter, he goes to the Transvolcanic Mountains in Mexico and spreads the word that he will pay $5 for each one found. That amount, about half a day’s pay for a laborer, is enough to make families spend hours sifting piles of dead butterflies beneath the fir trees where the monarchs roost, semidormant in the chilly fogs at 10,000 feet.

I mention this not only because it’s interesting, but because my kids and I have been part of that tagging process for the last two years (that’s them with their tagged butterflies below). Butterfliz of Iowa and a a local greenhouse have sponsored this tagging event for several years now, and it’s a great educational experience. The kids (and the parents!) get to learn all about the monarch’s migration (including much of what was mentioned in the NY Times article) and how tagging helps scientists better understand it, and then each child receives a butterfly and a tag to go with it. They determine the sex of the butterfly (based on the thin veins and pouches on the male), then gently place the tag on the monarch. They put them back in the cage while everyone else tags one, and then the butterflies are distributed and released in a flurry of cheers and wings. The kids then get a paper with their tag number, and they can go online in the coming months to see if anyone recovered their monarch (or to track monarchs that were released from our group, or Iowa in general). You can order your own tags here and tag captured monarchs as well (though they seem to be out right now). As Dr. B. mentions, this is a great teaching tool, in the classroom or at home.

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  1. Once, about 20 years ago, I observed the monarch migration here in Ohio (near Dayton). 1000s of butterflies settling in for the night.

  2. I used to live in Santa Cruz, where there’s a bunch of monarchs wintering. The first time I went out to the grove to see them, it was a bit cool (they don’t get active until it hits around 55F if I remember the temp correctly) and I couldn’t see them at all. At least not until I realised that the huge clumps of dead, dried leaves I was looking at up in the trees were huge groups of inactive monarchs. That was actually even more impressive, though not as pretty, as seeing them flying once it warmed up a bit.

    The tagging thing is great — a really great idea to get kids into nature and be a part of actual science.

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