Sunday, September 18, 2011

Monarch Migration: butterfly faces challenges along the way north and south

It was over three years ago that I started the RTSea Blog with an inaugural entry about the Monarch butterfly and its annual migration from the United States to Mexico. Not much of an ocean conservation subject but I linked it to the plight of white sharks and their migratory routes.

That was in May of 2008 and now the Monarch butterfly once again appears here, this time regarding how the Monarch butterfly is able to last through its entire journey and how researchers are tracking these butterflies in a manner, once again, similar to sharks: tagging.

The Monarch is an endangered insect due to the ongoing loss of deep forest habitat in Mexico. The trees are being cut down, usually illegally, and this limits the Monarch as it migrates south to the tropical forests in southern Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula.

Amazing as this annual migration seems, it is even more unusual because of the fact that many of the Monarchs do not live to make the entire journey, but their offspring know to continue southward, or northward depending on the time of year. Scientists are not sure as to why the Monarch has this ability to know where to go when born and they have yet to conclusively agree on how these insects are able to migrate from point A to point B and back again. Antennae which are sensitive to the magnetic fields around the planet is one of the more common theories - a concept that is used to explain migratory behavior in birds and even sharks.

As reported in the, a large population of Monarchs passes through Kansas, feeding on some of their primary food sources: nectar from milkweed and the Biden flower. In Kansas, there is an organization named Monarch Watch that monitors the butterflies' migration and conducts "tagging" of the Monarchs so that they can better determine the actual migratory route. Butterflies from across the central to eastern United States head south to a much smaller area in Mexico before heading northward in the early Spring.

Monarch Watch holds a one-day tagging event and this year's event drew 500 people of all ages to come see these butterflies and participate in learning more about the migration. According to Orely Taylor, ecology professor and founder of Monarch Watch,
“Everybody needs to get out and experience the wild. We need to get out and enjoy nature, and this is one of the opportunities to not only enjoy and participate in this incredible phenomenon, but also to contribute to science by learning about these butterflies through their tagging.”

Just as there is concern over the Mexican government's ability to effectively police the forests and prevent poaching of the trees that the Monarch butterfly seeks at the end of its migration, so it is in Kansas that conservation groups wish to ensure that there is sufficient food for the butterflies as they pass through. Much of the butterflies' food source in Kansas grows in wetlands and wetlands across the nation are continually threatened by urban development. Monarch Watch makes available Monarch Waystation Seed Kits that allow concerned citizens to grow the various types of plants that the butterflies depend on for growth to sustain them through their journey.

If people can become interested in tagging and feeding an endangered butterfly - something that they can see, that flies right into their own backyard literally and figuratively, geographically speaking, then perhaps they can come to appreciate other animals around the world that migrate as part of an evolutionary pattern of self-preservation. Perhaps, as I mentioned in my very first blog post, the Monarch butterfly and great white sharks still have a lot in common.

No comments: