A group of researchers launched a program this month asking the public to help locate monarch butterflies so they can better understand their migratory patterns and focus restoration efforts in the face of a population collapse.
The group of researchers from Washington State University, the University of California, Santa Cruz, Tufts University, and the Xerces Society is asking people to submit photos of monarchs they encounter either by uploading them to the iNaturalist app or sending them to the group via email. Participants will then be entered into a weekly raffle to win a prize.
Cheryl Schultz, associate professor at WSU’s School of Biological Sciences, said the aim of the program is to help researchers better understand where the western monarch butterfly, which migrates across the country and back each year, spends February through April.
“Looking for a butterfly is like looking for a needle in a haystack, so why not get the public to help us look?” Schultz said.
A massive crash from 2017 to 2018 brought the population of the western monarch to an estimated 30,000 last year — a 97 percent decline from populations in the 1980s. Schultz said if researchers know where the butterflies go after spending the colder winter months on the California coast, they may be able to better understand why fewer and fewer butterflies are arriving at summer breeding sites. Then they can focus on supporting the butterfly’s migration along that path.
“There’s a tremendous concern about what’s going on and if we are going to lose the migratory monarch,” Schultz said. “It’s like being a detective to figure out which part of the lifecycle is faltering.”
For western migratory monarch butterflies, surviving the winter months is no easy task. They cluster at sites within just a few miles of the coast, where sunshine and humidity are abundant. Groups that survive migrate to northern areas to summer sites across the Western United States.
But Schultz said that in the last couple of years, monarch populations at summer breeding sites in Oregon, Idaho and Washington have virtually disappeared. Western monarchs rely on native milkweed as their host plant, so researchers are also looking at changes to the plant for clues as to their location and needs during the early spring.
“Maybe it’s early flowering native milkweeds,” Schultz said. “Or maybe they’re roosting up in the woods, or maybe they need more fuel along the way. ... Any of those things might help monarchs get from the coastal overwintering sites to breeding sites broadly in the Central Valley.”
Schultz said the iNaturalist app, which is free to download and use, is convenient both for participants logging sightings and for researchers aggregating data, and that the group has already received information about recent sightings.
Participants are also welcome to send photos via email to MonarchMystery@wsu.edu with the date, species and location of the sighting. Anyone who submits a photo between Feb. 14 and Earth Day on April 22 will be entered into a weekly raffle to win prizes.