Monarch Monitoring in MISS

Kadie Gullickson, Biologic Technician, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area Since the 1950’s, when Dr. Fred Urquhart’s search for monarch butterflies’ wintering grounds piqued people’s curiosity, citizen science projects have helped researchers collect valuable data to understand the natural world. The project he started involved tagging and tracking individual monarchs, and led to the discovery that these amazing butterflies spent the summer in the Northern U.S. and Canada, but wintered in Mexico. Without hundreds of people’s help, he couldn’t have tracked them so successfully. Today, it’s even easier to find and take part in citizen science projects, and it has never been more important to get involved.

Monarch butterflies have dramatically declined in number since the mid-1990’s. One of the biggest reasons for the decline is a loss of habitat. Monarchs only lay their eggs on plants in the milkweed family, and that’s the only thing the caterpillars eat. Providing more nectar plants for the adult butterflies and more milkweeds for their larvae is a key part of monarch conservation. Since 2015, volunteers at Mississippi National River and Recreation Area have been involved in projects to learn about monarch butterflies and help improve the quality of habitat available to them at the park.

For the summer of 2015 “Adopt a monarch” project, volunteers collected eggs and caterpillars at Coldwater Spring and reared them to adult butterflies, which were released into the restored prairie. They learned how to make a monarch rearing box and take care of the caterpillars. Observing the life cycle of this fascinating insect up close was an exciting experience for many.

As part of National Public Lands Day 2015, volunteers planted about 1000 plants in a special hillside monarch garden, including several types of milkweed, blazing-stars (a favorite of the butterflies), and other nectar-producing native flowers. Milkweed seed has also been included in plantings as restoration moves forward in other parts of the park. In addition, the entry gardens at Coldwater Spring were officially certified as Monarch Waystations, and an educational sign was placed along the entrance road. A waystation must provide nectar resources (blooming plants) throughout the summer, and milkweed for monarchs. Plants in the gardens include: butterflyweed, swamp and common milkweeds, prairie onion, spiderwort, wild white indigo, leadplant, blazing-stars, coreopsis, phlox, prairie grasses, and hyssop.

At Mississippi National River and Recreation Area volunteers are doing citizen science through the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP) to study monarch and milkweed density at some of our restoration sites. Beginning in 2016, volunteers have helped us look for monarch butterflies, eggs and caterpillars and take an annual survey of milkweed density at Coldwater Spring and other sites along the river, and then submit their observations to the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP) online. We can use the data to learn about monarch butterflies and help improve the quality of habitat available to them at the park. For more information, or to get involved contact kadie_gullickson@nps.gov.

Monarch butterflies on a New England aster plant

The fall monarch migration is right around the corner, and monarch numbers are reaching their peak. The caterpillars now developing will be the special ones who live to fly south and overwinter in Mexico! They are the great-great-grandchildren of the monarchs who migrated north last spring. Another citizen science project seeks to better understand migration. Journey North is gathering data on spring and fall migration, and you can report sightings this fall. So take a stroll through the park and keep your eyes peeled for these amazing insects, and come join us next season for monarch monitoring, habitat restoration projects, and more.