Monarch survey seeks help of citizen scientists

HARLINGEN — Just call it science for everybody.

The University of Minnesota is sponsoring a unique international project to monitor the health of the monarch butterfly population in North America.

To do it, they want to use scientists such has yourself.

The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, which began last weekend and runs through Saturday, is designed to allow “citizen scientists” to crowdsource data from the United States, Mexico and Canada to better understand why monarch populations have declined by around 70 percent over the past 20 years.

Project managers hope crowdsourcing for an entire week will bring them a better picture of monarch breeding activity and the extent of the current population before the butterflies begin their migration to Mexico in the fall.

“The role of citizens in wildlife conservation is critical,” said Marion Mason, lead ranger at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. “The more we work together, the better off our wildlife species will be.

“When it comes to counting monarchs, they are an easily observed species and it doesn’t take much extra effort,” Mason said yesterday. “If you are out doing other things, just note if you see one and send in the data.”

The monarch’s range covers most of North American, spending its summers from Texas to southern Canada, and wintering in Mexico. That actually makes the species harder to study, said Julie McIntyre, an ecologist who serves as pollinator coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the Southwest region.

“We know as much about monarchs as we do any insect in the world that’s not a pest,” she said. “But a hundred percent of them may not migrate, so this information offers us data about the timing of its life cycle, and where and when the monarch is going through different life phases.”

While their summer range may be vast, their wintering stage in Mexico is microscopic by comparison.

“It’s a teeny area of maybe 11 hilltops in Mexico and that is where the annual monitoring surveys have been happening down in Mexico,” McIntyre said.

The citizen scientist isn’t an entirely new idea. McIntyre notes the Audubon Christmas Bird Count is one example, and she said there is a general summer butterfly census, too.

“It’s kind of modeled after the birders,” she said. “The butterfly and moth people are stealing their idea — because it’s a great one.”

The citizen scientists are tasked with reporting monarch activity wherever they find it, from adults to eggs to larval stages. People can sign up, or obtain more information on the project, by going to the website https://monarchlab.org/mlmp

The monarch butterfly, as McIntyre notes, is an iconic creature for anybody who grew up in North America.

“Everyone’s had a monarch phase in third-grade science,” she said. “It’s one of the more familiar species in our culture and it’s so beautiful it is something that is indelible in our minds — it’s orange and black and gorgeous.”