Students tag monarch butterflies to track migration to Mexico

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As summer comes to an end in Iowa, roadsides abundant in wildflowers and grasses teem with insect life. In September and October, monarch butterflies arrive in droves, stopping to rest and refuel on their journey from southern Canada and the northern United States to their winter home in central Mexico.

With monarch numbers in significant decline, a new Iowa State University learning community focused on environmental stewardship and sustainability is making monarch conservation a key component of its curriculum.

Freshmen in the Save Planet Earth (SPE) learning community have spent the first month of fall semester learning about the butterflies and their habitat, migration patterns and environmental pressures.

The Save Planet Earth learning community is open to freshmen in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who have not declared a major but are interested in sustainability, conservation and environmental issues. It brings a multidisciplinary approach to exploring those issues and incorporates perspectives from multiple departments on campus as well as from members of the Ames community, said Tom Neppl, senior lecturer in landscape architecture and SPE co-adviser with Pleasants.

On Monday, Sept. 14, the students will get out of the classroom to interact with the insects they’re learning about. They will capture and tag monarchs to aid efforts to tally the population and track its migration.

"Tagging provides data to scientists about migration patterns and population size, which helps them learn more about the butterflies’ status, which has been a concern," said Bethanie Blake, an architecture student and one of two peer mentors for the learning community.

Students will capture the butterflies at a site with "lots of butterfly-friendly plants" near the Iowa State Veterinary Medicine Complex. They’ll catch the butterflies using nets and carefully place a small tag on each insect’s back wing.

"There’s a popular myth that touching a butterfly’s wings will make it unable to fly, but that’s not true," said peer mentor Celeste Moreno, senior in biological/pre-medical illustration. "Neither the sticker (tag) nor the handling is harmful to the insect."

The tag has a specific code on it that students will enter into a database along with information including date, location, insect gender, wing size and the fact that these are wild rather than reared butterflies. After tagging, the butterflies will be released to continue their migration.

Trackers in Mexico who find tagged monarchs will enter the codes and other details into the database to let the original taggers know "their" butterflies successfully completed their journey.

Monarch Watch is the organization that distributes the tags and keeps the database.

"The organization pays local people in Mexico to find monarchs with tags. This contributes to the local economy along with ecotourism," said John Pleasants, adjunct assistant professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology and a co-adviser for the SPE learning community.

"Because it isn’t possible to capture monarchs in trees, they collect dead butterflies under the trees to locate ones with tags," he said.

In addition to the tagging activity, the learning community also is helping residents of a southwest Ames neighborhood develop a "monarch waystation" at Mortensen Mounds, a lot that served as a dump site during the construction of the university’s Knapp-Storms and Wilson-Wallace residence halls. Monarch waystations are areas with naturally occurring or intentionally seeded nectar and monarch host plants like bee balm, purple coneflower, butterfly weed, and common and swamp milkweed.

"Monarchs are pollinators and help make a lot of the food we eat possible through pollination. The number of monarchs reached record lows these past few years, so it’s important that we help bring those numbers back up, especially because they share habitat with lots of other pollinators like moths and honeybees," Moreno said. "By helping the monarchs, we help other important pollinators, too."

"We’re aiming to get these students excited about science and to show them how it’s applied in an actual community setting. A colleague described it to me as ‘chasing butterflies for science,’ which is exactly what we plan to do on Sept. 14," Neppl said.

The tagging event will be closed to the general public due to equipment and time limitations, but there will be future events with opportunities for community involvement, he said.

The learning community initiative is supported in part by a grant to ISU from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Science Education Program.

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NEWS RELEASE College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Iowa State University

Contacts: Tom Neppl, SPE Adviser, Landscape Architecture, (515) 231-0547, John Pleasants, SPE Adviser, Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, Celeste Moreno, SPE Peer Mentor, Biological/Pre-Medical Illustration, Bethanie Blake, SPE Peer Mentor, Architecture and Environmental Studies, Jess Guess, LAS Communications, (515) 294-9906, Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289,