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Monarch Monitoring Handbook: A Guide to Helping Monarchs

Posted on Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 2:24 pm in Monarch Conservation Efforts

In 2008, monarch scientists and conservationists from the US, Canada, and Mexico wrote a comprehensive plan for monarch conservation: the North American Monarch Conservation Plan (NAMCP, see our 2008 Newsletter).

A key objective of this plan is to monitor monarch baseline performance and habitat quality. Karen Oberhauser and Reba Batalden (U of M Monarch Lab) and Elizabeth Howard (Journey North) have authored a monarch monitoring handbook, available on the website of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (http://www.cec.org/programs_projects/) and in limited hard copy format to meet his objective.

The fact that monarchs are spread over such a large area for most of their annual migratory cycle makes their population dynamics difficult to assess. However, data from many monarch monitoring programs are helping us understand such basic questions as how and when monarchs use available habitat, how population numbers change within and between years, how environmental perturbations affect these changes, and how monarch populations are responding to conservation efforts.

5th instar caterpillar on milkweed. (Photo: Richard Hicks)

Many of the programs described in the Monarch Monitoring Handbook are citizen science projects, projects that involve people who are not professionals in scientific research. These projects combine research, education, community development, and conservation outcomes, and provide a great way for anyone to get involved in monarch research and conservation. Monarchs are ideal candidates for citizen monitoring programs. From a practical perspective, they enjoy an almost iconic status with the public, and many people are willing to invest time to contribute to a better understanding of their biology and conservation needs. They are easy to recognize, and utilize habitats that are accessible to many people. From a scientific perspective, an understanding of monarch population dynamic requires long-term and large-scale monitoring.

They utilize diverse habitats during their annual migratory cycle, and their populations fluctuate dramatically within and between years. Throughout the course of their annual cycle of breeding, migrating and overwintering, monarch distribution and abundance are affected by current environmental factors and conditions experienced by previous generations. For example, monarch abundance in June in the north central United States may be affected by storms in central Mexico in the preceding January, or dry conditions in Texas during April and May. Understanding all of these factors would be difficult or impossible without the participation of citizen scientists throughout monarch habitats across North America.

If you’d like to get involved, choose a project, a time of the year, or a habitat, and start to make detailed observations. Check out the table or read the Monarch Monitoring Handbook. This rewarding, fun investment can make a huge difference!

Project NameSeasonWeb site
Monarch Larva Monitoring Project: egg and larval abundance during breeding season. Summerwww.mlmp.org
NABA Butterfly Counts: adult abundanceSummerwww.naba.org
Butterfly Monitoring Networks (multiple programs): adult abundanceSummerVarious (see programs in IL, OH, IN, FL)
Fall migration and stopover sites (multiple programs): Fall migrationFallVarious (local programs often at nature centers or parks)
Monarch Watch: Fall MigrationFallwww.monarchwatch.org
Journey North: Spring and Fall migration timing and peak numbersSpring and Fallwww.learner.org/jnorth
Project Monarch Health: rates of infection by key monarch parasitesAll yearwww.monarchparasites.org
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