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Monarch Research on the Prairie

May 31, 2014

Monarch adult on flowerWe love Monarchs at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences! They’re featured heavily in our exhibits and our educational programs, so it’s only natural that we participate in a variety of Monarch-centered citizen science projects as well. At Prairie Ridge, we tag Monarchs during their fall migration for Monarch Watch, track Monarch sightings for Journey North and Nature’s Notebook, and sample Monarch scales for parasites for Monarch Health. These are all great projects and are easy to get involved with, but we participate in a more complex Monarch project as well: the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, or MLMP, was developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota. For over a decade, they have collected long-term data on larval Monarch populations and milkweed habitat with the help of citizen scientists from across the US and Canada. The researchers hope to better understand how and why Monarch populations vary in time and space by focusing on Monarch distribution and abundance during the breeding season in North America. MLMP volunteers help learn more about Monarch biology as they participate and are contributing information valuable to the conservation of this amazing and increasingly threatened species.

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweedThere are several different data collection opportunities within MLMP, but we focus on the original activity at Prairie Ridge, monitoring milkweed plants for Monarch eggs and larvae. Each week, our fabulous garden volunteers head into our milkweed patch and look at every leaf on 100 milkweed plants, counting any Monarch eggs they discover and counting and identifying the stage of any caterpillars. Because we have more than 100 plants in our patch, it’s important that we randomize which plants we monitor, so we set up random transects through our patch by spinning a game spinner to choose our direction, laying out a measuring tape, and observing every plant within 3 feet of either side of the tape. The volunteers yell out their counts for each plant to our data recorder and we keep going, laying more transects as necessary, until we reach 100 plants. It’s a simple process, though it does take a bit more time than a lot of citizen science projects.

Volunteers in the field monitoring milkweed for MLMPBecause we’ve collected MLMP data for several years now, we’re able to look for patterns in our data and we’ve seen some interesting things. Our milkweed patch definitely follows the pattern you expect to see in the south: we get two bursts of egg production, one in the late spring and one in the late summer. There’s a big lull in activity in the middle where we don’t see any eggs, larvae, or adults. Our Monarchs seem to prefer the Common Milkweed plants, though we have a couple of other species available as well, including Butterfly Milkweed. Sadly, the number of eggs and larvae we’ve seen the last few years has been way down, but we’ve already seen some good activity this year. We’re hoping things are looking up and we’ll see a big crop of Monarchs this year!

If you want to get involved in MLMP, there are a few easy ways to get started. If you have a milkweed patch in your yard or near your home that contains at least 50 plants, you can visit once a week during the Monarch breeding season (approximately April – September), run transects (if you have more than 100 plants), and count eggs and caterpillars like we do at Prairie Ridge. If you don’t have access to 50 milkweed plants or don’t want to participate weekly, you can still get involved. MLMP now gives participants the opportunity to submit anecdotal observations, which are one-time or irregular observations of just a few plants. Say you walked by a Common Milkweed plant and saw a Monarch caterpillar. You can report your sighting to MLMP as an anecdotal sighting without the obligation of weekly monitoring. We also offer occasional MLMP training workshops at Prairie Ridge in the fall. We weren’t able to last year because we didn’t have enough Monarchs out in the fields to make it work, but keep an eye out on the calendar for a workshop this year! We should be able to offer one if the spring boom in Monarch activity holds into the fall.

Monarch laying eggs on Common MilkweedThough it’s a little more involved and requires more time and effort than a lot of other citizen science projects, we love MLMP! We’ve been participating in MLMP at Prairie Ridge since we first opened and we know we’re contributing to the greater understanding of these charismatic butterflies. We’ve already seen good activity this year, including visits to plants by adult monarchs and several eggs and larvae, which is great! Last year was a brutal one for Monarchs and the overwintering population in Mexico was a tiny fraction of what it’s been in the past. It’s great to see so many Monarchs in the Prairie Ridge milkweed patch this year and we hope other MLMP sites are seeing similar results!

Photos by Chris Goforth

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