Scientists look to public for clues to recover monarch butterflies
Researchers created the “Western Monarch Mystery Challenge” to help inform conservation efforts for the plummeting western monarch population.
SANTA CRUZ, Calif.— Migratory western monarch has declined by more than 99% since the 1980’s. The Xerces Society, an international invertebrate conservation nonprofit, reported that the total number counted in 2020 was down to 1,914, a drop by more than 90% from the prior year — a count already below the threshold at which scientists warned the migration may collapse.
To help scientists gain insight into migratory monarchs this spring, researchers are inviting the community to participate in the Western Monarch Mystery Challenge. The challenge was started by a group of researchers from Washington State University, Tufts University, University of California at Santa Cruz and the Xerces Society to help fill a critical gap in knowledge about habitat needs of migrating monarchs in the spring. Running from Feb. 14 (Valentine’s Day) to April 22 (Earth Day), the challenge is a call to action to report a monarch if you see one. Once you report a sighting, you will be entered to win prizes.
“We are already receiving sighting reports, which is very exciting,” said Cheryl Schultz, a WSU biology professor and lead researcher on the project. “The reports show enthusiasm from our community and their deep connection to monarchs.”
How to participate:
- If you see a monarch outside of overwintering groves, take a picture! (Don’t worry, it can be far away and blurry).
- Report it through the following options, and be sure to include date and location:
- iNaturalist (the app is free)
- Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper OR
- Email it to MonarchMystery@wsu.edu
- Be entered to win a variety of prizes every week you report a sighting.
“Our current focus is understanding the migratory part of the western monarch population,” Schultz said. “There are resident monarchs which live and breed year-round in parts of California. The migratory part of the population overwinters in the coastal groves and spreads across the western U.S. in the summer. These are the monarchs of greatest concern today.”
Scientists know that migratory monarchs spend winter months in groves along the California coast and that wild monarchs are breeding in central California by May. However, much less is known about where monarchs are in February, March and April. This gap is critical to understanding where and when to focus conservation efforts.
“We don’t know exactly where western monarchs are in spring, but we do know that this is a critical point in the life cycle,” said Elizabeth Crone, a Tufts University biology professor. “Monarch populations are smallest at this time of year and individual butterflies may be at their weakest right after their long winter diapause.”
Solving the mystery of where wild, migratory western monarchs are at this time of year is a way for Californians to make a contribution to conserving and restoring the monarch migration in the West. (Note: Reared monarchs are not part of this study.)
“The Monarch Mystery Challenge is an opportunity to get even more people to participate in western monarch community science–and these animals need our help right now, more than ever,” said Sarina Jepsen, conservation biologist at the Xerces Society.
Note: All data will be added to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper, a year-round community science project tracking milkweeds and monarchs in the West.
To stay updated: follow the Western Monarch Mystery Challenge on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
The Western Monarch Mystery Challenge is supported by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant awarded to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) as part of their Western Monarch Conservation Plan, 2019-2069, a region-wide program to restore and recover monarch butterflies across the western landscape.
- Lilianne de la Espriella, WSU communications coordinator, 561-929-7764, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Cheryl Schultz, professor, WSU School of Biological Sciences, email@example.com