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Monarch Citizen Science Takes Flight - August 20, 2017

Turning over a new leaf, a milkweed leaf to be exact, might return a happy surprise for those waiting to greet the chubby yellow, black, and white striped caterpillars that mark the return of monarchs to the local area.  These unique caterpillars hatch from small white eggs, laid by the female butterflies, under the poisonous milkweed leaves. They depend on the integration of the milkweed toxins into their body in order to deter their predators. After about two weeks of gorging themselves on their pure milkweed diet, they will prepare to transform. The caterpillar will hang upside down and form its chrysalis which bright, neon-green color will gradually fade to a beautiful, jade green. Inside, the caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis as it begins its transition into adulthood. After their life-changing alteration, they emerge and within hours take to the skies, ready to lay more eggs and begin their journey south, some destined to travel for hundreds or even thousands of miles.

 The monarch butterfly, with its intrinsic beauty and unique migration, has caught the attention of many individuals, including scientists and citizens alike. Its well-known vibrant orange color framed with black borders and white spots has decorated the summer landscape across North America for generations. They have achieved a great deal of public interest as the official insect or butterfly of seven U.S. States. They link countries with their migratory patterns and influence a complex ecosystem with their presence. Unfortunately, within the past decades, the population of monarchs has seen a decline. The locations in Mexico where the monarchs reside in the winter have decreased in their availability. In addition, the migratory passageway through the States they once relied on is disappearing. This habitat loss has occurred during the same time as colony size reduction; however, the full implications are unknown. Increases in development and the use of residential and agricultural pesticides have been suspected as the cause for their population decline.

 A better understanding of this complex biology is necessary for a powerful conservation effort to take flight. The goal is to not only collect scientific data to be analyzed, but also to yield a general storyline of the monarch. For instance, the main unknown factor that has been debated within the scientific community is the accurate annual migration pattern of the species along the North American continent. This better understanding can lead to an overall appreciation for the intricate nature that the monarch embodies. An approach to creating a positive interaction between human and nature is the practice of citizen science. Citizen science is the use of average citizens, with non-scientific backgrounds, gaining an involved interest in a particular species or area of research, and then playing a role in the collection of data.

This collection often occurs through observation, as an important source of information which would otherwise be nearly impossible to study scientifically because of the spatial scope involved. The history of citizen science data is extensive, and the culture and appreciation of biota it has created, is rich. The total number of monarchs tagged in the past 20 years is now approximately two million. The application of a small, circular, sticker-like tag is placed strategically on the lower wing of the butterfly so that the flight pattern is not disrupted, the survivability is unaltered, and the tracking number is clearly visible. This tracking number correlates to a record of the butterfly’s information, which can be accessed once the butterfly is recaptured. After recapture at the end of its migration, the path in which the butterfly took is revealed. Many different programs have been initiated in order to aid in the collection of this informative data. The programs utilize various volunteer bases, adding to the collective knowledge held on this issue. The hope of citizen science is that after participating in the study, the person or group is then motivated to make a change, or at least spread awareness. By having the volunteers track the migration and breeding of the butterfly at such an intimate level they are able to realize their bond, form a relationship with the species, and initiate a lasting connection.

The army of citizen scientists has provided a valued resource of data and information, with which scientists have used to uncover and explain the biology and specifically the complexities of migration to the general public. Use of citizen science in schools and in volunteer programs is a beneficial outlet for all parties. Not only are the volunteers getting involved in a fun activity which connects them to nature but the scientists are dependent on their ability to report honest data on the species.

The citizen science efforts that have been focused on the monarch butterfly represent efforts that have not been seen on such a large scale. It truly is a movement empowering its participants to become scientists and advocates so that change is created by the people for an important part of our ecosystem. Monarch citizen science is a model system for understanding all types of participatory research and the implications that citizen science could become its own field of science is nothing but exciting. We have seen the significance and have provided validity to the movement. Monarch butterfly population decline is currently being carefully monitored and hopefully that relationship will lead to even more impactful change on a large regional international scale.

Warfield is an environmental intern with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 



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