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Tagging Monarch Butterflies

October 6, 2018

This post is brought to you by Morgan Gilbert!  Morgan is a senior at NC State and is majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology with a Wildlife Concentration.  She is interning for the Citizen Science Unit at Prairie Ridge this semester.  Thanks, Morgan!

With nets in hand, today’s Citizen Science Saturday started out with a bang, chasing after Monarch butterflies along the prairie.  The intent this time not just to observe them up close, but to place a minuscule sticker on the hindwing. On this sticker is an ID number that helps researchers track the migration flight of the butterfly.  The sticker is also specifically made light and with a strong adhesive so as to minimally affect the butterfly during migration.

Catching these lepidopterans was quite an excitement, with each being caught in unique ways.  The first of our hunt was patiently sitting on a flower and barely reacted when a net was placed over it.  Once within the net, the catcher then gently pinches the top of the base of all four wings close to the butterfly’s body (as seen in the picture below).  In this position, the butterfly is immobile and will not be injured. The scales will not come off easily either. A sticker is then attached to the largest cell located on the hindwing.  After a sticker is attached, the butterfly is then released. A total of three Monarchs were caught and tagged during this expedition. One of those tagged crawled right onto someone’s hand. The other had to be chased.

Monarch male, before tagging

Monarch male, before tagging. Photo by Morgan Gilbert.

Monarch male, after tagging

Monarch male, after tagging. Photo by Morgan Gilbert.

Other than placing a sticker, we also recorded information on each Monarch, including the tag number, sex, status, and date and location where the butterfly was captured.  To tell the males apart from the females, we look for a large black spot on a vein on their hindwing.  You can see this scent gland on the hindwing of the male in the image below.

Monarch male sitting on Ironweed.

Monarch male sitting on Ironweed.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

The migration of the Monarch butterflies was discovered by Dr. Fred Urquhart, who developed the first method of butterfly tagging in the 1940s and called on the help of hundreds of citizen scientists to track the migration.  After nearly 30 years of tagging and research, Monarchs were finally discovered overwintering in the fir forests of the mountains of Mexico by citizen scientists. Since then, over a dozen sites have been discovered within the area.  

The butterflies we tag here will make their trip into Mexico starting in November.  Come next March, the butterflies will then migrate back into the United States to lay eggs and begin a new generation.  

The ID’s of the three caught on September 20 at Prairie Ridge were YXA 829, YXA 832, and YXA 837.  You can follow our butterflies on in late spring or summer of 2019!

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