Researchers tag, release long-distance flyers – Monarch butterflies

By Nikola Cameron

Oct 15th, 2015

Dan McNeill wanted to know what is happening to all of the monarch butterflies.

He knew just how to do it. Tag them.

The number of butterflies is declining and scientists, including McNeill, are tracking their migration to better understand why they are endangered.

McNeill is wildlife conservation biologist with the Badeque Bay Environmental Management Association. He was part of a group who demonstrated to Holland college students recently, how a monarch butterfly is captured, tagged and released and how their migration is being tracked.

Also taking part were Chris Newell, a project coordinator with Protecting Environmental, and Jason MacNeill, a field crew worker with the Badeque group.

They tag the butterflies with a small sticker on the wing. Once the butterflies get to Mexico for the winter they all gather in the same area in Mexico City, said McNeill.

“Once they breed there and die, they’re collected and anything with a tag is uploaded on the website.”

The sticker is gently placed on the butterfly’s wings and the butterflies are placed in nets.

During the demonstration the team took the nets outside and gave the students a chance to put their hands inside. That allowed a butterfly to latch onto them so they could release them.

The butterfly migrates from Canada to Mexico or Florida in the fall because the species cannot survive the cold winter. They are one of the few butterfly species to migrate such a large distance, said Newell.

“From here down to Mexico you are looking at about a 3,000-kilometre trip. Each one of these butterflies will travel about 50km a day. Now, for a butterfly, that is pretty incredible.”

Monarch butterflies are important to the ecosystem because they help pollinate the food we eat.

Their habitats are being endangered and destroyed, that is reducing their numbers, said McNeill.

The species is at risk of going extinct because it lives in Canada and Mexico and migrates for the winter. It is difficult to protect a species that lives in three countries using different laws.

In certain areas in the States, people are ripping out milkweed, which is reducing butterfly populations. In Mexico, people can go into reserves and do selective logging, opening up spaces in the canopy, causing butterfly deaths over the winter, said Newell.

The monarch migration has been tracked for some time. That has helped to educate scientists about the butterfly and its migration, and why they are at risk of going extinct.

People have been doing monarch butterfly migration tracking since the 70s and it has progressed a lot more in the last decade or so, said Newell.

“They are able to now put GPS trackers on monarchs and a lot more technical things, so we are learning, just in the last decade, so much more than anything we’ve known in the past.”

Demonstrating how the butterfly is tagged helps raise awareness of the risks to the butterfly and how important they are to the ecosystem, said MacNeill.

“We find that educating people just helps get the notice out about all the monarchs.”

There are ways people can help, said MacNeill.

“The more people that plant milkweed in their garden, then there’s more places for these monarchs to go and lay their eggs, and for caterpillars to go and have another generation.”