Mission Monarch: citizens to the rescue

Jeremy Kerr and Rosana Soares, both holding nets, look into one of the nets.

“There’s no damage to our ability to grow food if monarch butterflies disappear, but our world becomes a little less colourful. We want to live in a world that’s at least as beautiful as the one we inherited from our parents.”

—  Jeremy Kerr

By Laura Eggertson

A uOttawa professor is at the forefront of an innovative project to save monarch butterflies from extinction by mobilizing citizen scientists this summer to identify and monitor places where the king of the butterfly species breeds.

And it all comes down to the milkweed.

Once prevalent across North America, monarchs have declined by as much as 90% over the past 25 years, says Professor Jeremy Kerr, a biologist in the Faculty of Science who holds the University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation Biology.

Severe weather events spawned by climate change, deforestation, urban sprawl gobbling up farmland and the use of pesticides are all combining to reduce the monarch population. Today, monarchs are listed as a species of special concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

To stem the real risk to monarchs of extinction, Kerr believes “we need to pay very close attention to their breeding habitat, and particularly to the availability of milkweed.”

Milkweed, a leafy green wildflower with seed pods, provides both the breeding grounds where the butterflies lay their eggs, and the food for the hatching larvae (caterpillars). Monarchs are migratory; they spend the winter in central Mexico, and then make the 4,000-kilometre journey to Canada to breed. Once the caterpillars crystalize into butterflies, they fly back to Mexico in late fall — a cycle that takes four generations to complete.

Protecting the milkweed located along the butterflies’ migratory route is critical to efforts to save them. So Kerr and his colleagues have hatched a plan to enlist anyone interested in ensuring the survival of the iconic butterfly in locating exactly where that milkweed grows.

Visit, chart, photograph 

The Insectarium in Montreal is leading the project, under the direction of Kerr’s former postdoctoral student Maxim Larrivée, head of entomological collections and research. Along with the University of Ottawa, the Université du Québec à Rimouski and the University of Calgary, the Insectarium officially launched Mission Monarch on June 8.

The project will combine continental global satellite imagery, an international data repository and old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground field research to identify and chart the specific places across Canada and the United States where the milkweed plant grows.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on a common milkweed.

Mission Monarch asks the public to fan out and search conservation areas, forest borders, agricultural fields and other areas that Kerr and his colleagues have already mapped, using satellite imagery, as being hospitable to milkweed. Once citizen scientists have spotted either milkweed or monarchs, the researchers are asking them to enter their data on the project website.

They hope people will then return to the same spot — ideally once a week — throughout the summer, to photograph and count eggs, caterpillars, pupae and butterflies and enter their observations on the website, where they can also learn more about this North American conservation campaign.

The researchers hope looking for milkweed and monarchs will become a national pastime this summer, involving families, students and conservation enthusiasts. The data they gather will inform future campaigns to help preserve the critical breeding areas.  

“We’re going to try to protect or manage those habitats during the breeding season,” Kerr says.

Jeremy Kerr, smiling, holds a butterfly specimen.

Professor Jeremy Kerr holding another large Canadian butterfly, a Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). Photo: Bonnie FIndley

Emblematic species

Monarchs live alongside humans, so protecting the sites will not require fencing them off or creating protected parks. However, the resulting conservation campaign may focus on practices such as discouraging the application of pesticide to areas where milkweed grows.

Milkweed is an important food source for many butterfly species, including the Edwards' Hairstreak (Satyrium edwardsii).

Without these efforts, Kerr and Larrivée are afraid the beautiful butterflies that have come to symbolize connection between North Americans will soon disappear. And while losing the monarchs would not affect humans’ ability to survive in any direct way, their extinction would still diminish us, Kerr says.  

“There’s no damage to our ability to grow food if monarch butterflies disappear, but our world becomes a little less colourful. We want to live in a world that’s at least as beautiful as the one we inherited from our parents. It’s an ethical issue,” he adds.

Larrivée believes Mission Monarch will engage the public and help people reconnect to nature. 

“Monarchs grab the attention of Canadians in a visceral way because often they are the first point of contact with nature and entomology for many kids, who are now adults,” says Larrivée.

“To know that we are putting a plan together to help restore the population — and asking citizens to help protect such an emblematic and charismatic species — will definitely draw attention and get people out there to help us.”

Value of collective effort

The federal government is helping to fund the research project and urging Canadians to participate. Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change, said her department “will be implementing this initiative in our protected areas within the monarch breeding range in Eastern Canada.”

The Insectarium's Maxim Larrivée, a former uOttawa postdoctoral student. Photo: Sonya Charest 

Kerr hopes the project will also serve another important purpose: demonstrating that collective effort can change seemingly predetermined outcomes.

Sometimes people look at these problems and view them as nearly insoluble,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Saving most species is much easier than people think. It’s just a matter of thinking about what we do and changing it just a little bit — to save a bit of habitat.”

If Mission Monarch is as successful as Kerr and Larrivée anticipate, it will also chart the way for future citizen-scientist initiatives.

“I have a feeling that the way we are approaching the situation of the monarchs in Canada will set a standard for future large-scale conservation efforts, nationally and internationally,” says Larrivée.

Learn more about Mission Monarch.

Main photo:
Jeremy Kerr, University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation, and MSc candidate Rosana Soares catching butterflies at a field site. Photo: Bonnie Findley

A butterfly clings to a flowering plant.

An adult female monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) sipping nectar from a common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Mission Monarch invites citizens to become involved in saving the butterflies and their breeding habitat.

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