It's early spring and Western monarchs are heading inland from their overwintering sites along the California coast.
Have you seen any monarchs?
A group of monarch researchers from Washington State University, Tufts University, University of California at Santa Cruz, and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation seek your participation in the Western Monarch Mystery Challenge to help gain insight as to where the monarchs go. They want to fill "a critical gap in knowledge about habitat needs of migrating monarchs in the spring."
“We are very excited to see so many western monarchs on the coast this winter!" said conservation biologist and lead researcher Cheryl Schultz, a professor in Washington State University's School of Biological Sciences, in noting that the 2021 Thanksgiving count directed by the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation totaled 247,237, a 100-fold increase from the less than 2000 monarchs recorded in 2020. "Monarchs are resilient. Because the numbers are up this year, it is a fabulous opportunity to learn where they go when they leave the coast as they head to breeding areas."
The challenge, launched Feb. 14 and to end April 22 (Earth Day), is a call to action: If you see a monarch in the area of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Idaho and Utah (see map below), what you do is report the sighting, take an image (a cell phone photo is fine) and enter it the campaign for a chance at a prize.
While on sabbatical at UC Davis, Crone presented a seminar Jan. 29, 2020 to the Department of Entomology and Nematology on "Why Are Monarchs Declining in the West?"
“Surprisingly, we don't really know where western monarch butterflies are during this time period, roughly mid-February through mid-May," Crone told the UC Davis crowd. "Future research will focus on filling this knowledge gap, as well as building quantitative knowledge of the western monarch demography throughout their complex annual life cycle, which is needed to understand the relative contributions of habitat at different points in the life cycle to population declines and recovery.”
Crone related that what fascinates her about monarchs is "the possibility that we can recover the western monarch population from its recent steep decline to being abundant again. This should be a problem we can fix."
The Western Monarch Mystery Challenge "is an opportunity to get even more people to participate in western monarch community science–and these animals need our help right now, more than ever," said conservation biologist Emma Pelton of the Xerces Society.
"We know they spend winter months (November to February) in groves along the California Coast, and start breeding in central California in May," the group of researchers wrote in an email. "However, we know little about where monarchs are in March and April. Solving the mystery of where western monarchs spend the spring is central to conserving and restoring the phenomenon of monarch migration in the West."
The call to action, they said, is simple:
- If you see a monarch outside the overwintering groves, take a picture (don't worry, it can be blurry). We suspect that monarchs spend the spring somewhere between the coast and the Central Valley
- Report it to iNaturalist (the app is free) OR email it to email@example.com and include species, date and location
- Be automatically entered to win a variety of prizes every week you report a sighting. Be sure to check your messages on iNaturalist if you use the app to submit sightings. If you upload a monarch photo from outside the overwintering sites (and not any from monarch rearing projects as these "skew the data and could jeopardize the quality and legitimacy of conservation plans) you will automatically be entered in a weekly prize drawing. Prizes include gift cards to REI and other awards. More information is available at https://labs.wsu.edu/conservation-biology/western-monarch-mystery-challenge/
The Western Monarch Mystery Challenge is supported by the Monarch Joint Venture in collaboration with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, as part of its Western Monarch Conservation Plan, 2019-2069, a regional program to restore and recover monarch butterflies across the Western landscape.
How do they do that?
“Insect wings are dynamic," postdoctoral research fellow and insect biomechanist Mary Salcedo of Virginia Tech told those at her recent UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar. "They're living structures. They allow an insect to pollinate. They allow insects to unfurl their wing or turn on a dime to catch their prey."
Speaking on "Hydraulics in an Insect Wing: How Venation Pattern Affects Circulation," she went on to explain that insect wings are flexible, dynamic living structures that are composed of long tubular veins, and thin membrane."
"The veins act as conduits, containing hemolymph (insect blood), oxygen supply (through trachea tubes), and nerves (sensory information in flight). Wings allow an insect to perform a myriad of behaviors such as predation, migration and pollination."
Her seminar also marked the first of the department's "virtual seminars" or webinars. This change--from gathering in 122 Briggs Hall to a virtual seminar--is due to the ongoing threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
If you missed it, you can watch her seminar here.
Salcedo, a member of the Jake Socha lab, received a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship to investigate fundamental insect physiology. She holds three degrees: a bachelor of science in applied and computational math sciences (2012( from the University of Washington; a bachelor of science in molecular, cellular and developmental biology (2012) from the University of Washington, and a doctorate in biomechanics, biology and applied math (2018) from Harvard.
Coordinating the seminars is community ecologist Rachel Vannette, assistant professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology (firstname.lastname@example.org). She will be providing the links the virtual seminars. (See schedule of spring seminars.)
Professor Elizabeth Crone of Tufts University who researches monarchs (as well as bumble bees), drew a standing-room only crowd when she presented a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar on the decline of Western monarchs.
UC Davis professor Neal Williams, a pollination ecologist who researches native bees, praised her "fearless perspective in the use of statistics; I value her insights." Williams has collaborated with her "off and on" for 20 years.
Crone, who just finished a six-month research sabbatical at UC Davis, says her work centers on population ecology, especially of plants and insects, and plant-animal interactions. "Specifically, I am interested in how environmental changes translate to changes in population dynamics: For example, is there a simple, linear matching of changes in resources to abundance of consumers, or do interactions among individuals and species moderate these responses? Much of my research also involves developing novel quantitative approaches to predict long-term dynamics from small scale observations and experiments. Current projects include studies of butterflies, bees, perennial wildflowers, sugar maples, and acorn-granivore interactions."
In her UC Davis seminar, Crone pointed out that the population of Western monarchs, which overwinter along the California coast, dropped from an estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s to less than 30,000 in the winter of 2019.
After the monarchs leave their overwintering sites in February and head inland, "we don't really know where they are in spring," Crone lamented. "There's not a lot of records of where monarchs are in spring. That's why we're trying to draw on citizen scientists to help us find monarch butterflies in the spring."
Crone is a member of a team of researchers, led by Cheryl Schultz, biology professor at Washington State University, who are recruiting the public, aka citizen scientists, to report sightings of monarchs from Feb. 14 through April 22, Earth Day. The project is called the Western Monarch Mystery Challenge.
To participate in the Western Monarch Mystery Challenge:
- If you see a monarch outside of overwintering groves, take a picture! (Don't worry, it can be far away and blurry.)
- Report it to iNaturalist (the app is free) OR email MonarchMystery@wsu.edu and be sure to include date, species and location for both methods
- You will automatically be entered to win a variety of prizes every week you report a sighting.
All data will be added to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper, a year-round community science project tracking milkweeds and monarchs in the West.
Crone told the UC Davis crowd that "we need to understand the basic biology throughout the life cycle....So from a conservation perspective, we know that we need to protect and restore overwintering sites on the coast of California...It also helps to improve summer habitat both for its own sake and maybe to mitigate losses. It other places, this includes planting your own pollinator gardens. It includes minimizing ;pesticide use society-wide."
It's not just agriculturists who use pesticides, said Crone, noting that "California tracks pesticide use." She showed a database that indicated 25 percent of the state's total pesticide use is for non-agricultural uses. This includes pesticide applications in parks, roadsides and golf courses, she said. "That doesn't include people who go to Lowe's or Home Depot and pick up a can of insecticide to prevent the aphids from eating their roses. And read the label and it says, 'Why don't you just spray every week so you never see aphids at all?' So we should be very aware that pesticides are everywhere in our landscape, and a lot of us are using them without thinking about them. And anything we can do to minimize pesticides has got to be good for nearly all insects."
From an applied ecology perspective, Crone considers her biggest accomplishment "helping the Fender's blue butterfly move from being listed as endangered to nearly ready for down-listing. From a basic ecology perspective, I figured out the ecological interpretation of variance terms in mixed models as estimates of spatial heterogeneity and environmental stochasticity, and worked out one of the best examples of how mast-seeding species are synchronized by their pollinators."
"It's an exciting time to be an ecologist," Crone said. "Because the puzzle of linking natural history and theoretical ecology to guide conservation is really intellectually interesting, even from an academic perspective. And it also makes me optimistic."
"We did it with Fender's blue butterfly," she told the crowd. "Maybe we can help prevent other insect populations from being at risk of extinction."
To listen to her talk, access this newly uploaded video from ucdavis.edu/media. Access is free.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation reported this week that its Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count shows a decline for the second consecutive year. “Sadly, fewer than 30,000 monarchs were counted—29,418 to be exact—for the second year in a row, so the western monarch population remains at a critical level,” according to Matthew Shepherd, director of communications and outreach. (See Xerces press release and blog about the population count for this winter.)
Researcher Elizabeth Crone, a professor at Tufts University, Medford, Ma., will shed some light on the issue when she delivers a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar on "Why Are the Monarch Butterflies Declining in the West?" from 4:10 to 5 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 29 in 122 Briggs Hall, off Kleiber Hall Drive, UC Davis campus. Her longtime collaborator, pollination ecologist and professor Neal Williams, will introduce her.
"Ecologists now face the dual challenge of documenting changes in the environment, and figuring out appropriate strategies for conserving and recovering natural resources in changing environments," says Crone, who is completing a research sabbatical at UC Davis. In her talk, she will focus on “using the tools of population ecology to address both sides of this challenge: quantifying changes in the abundance of western monarch butterflies (and factors associated with these changes), and using theory and data to design strategies and targets for restoration and recovery.”
“Analyses of past dynamics (1980-2017) showed that western monarch butterflies have declined more quickly than their eastern counterparts, and that these declines were most strongly associated with loss of overwintering habitat, and more weakly (but significantly) associated with increased pesticide use and warmer breeding season temperatures,” Crone writes in her abstract. “Analyses of current conditions (2018-2019) suggest that a recent dramatic drop in abundance occurred in spring, between when monarch butterflies leave coastal overwintering sites and arrive in the Central Valley and Sierra Foothills.”
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation reported this week that its Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count shows a decline for the second consecutive year. “Sadly, fewer than 30,000 monarchs were counted—29,418 to be exact—for the second year in a row, so the western monarch population remains at a critical level,” according to Matthew Shepherd, director of communications and outreach. (See press release and a blog article about the population count for this winter.)
A native of Alexandria, Va., Crone received her bachelor's degree in biology, summa cum laude, from the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va., in 1991, and her doctorate in botany from Duke University in 1995. She served as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle, from 1996-1997. Her career encompasses academic appointments at Harvard University, University of Montana, and the University of Calgary.
No stranger to UC Davis, Crone has collaborated with Neal Williams "on and off" for the past 20 years. “We had a National Science Foundation grant to study bumble bee populations from 2014-2019, so I have been visiting regularly since he got here. Starting in winter 2019, I have also had funding to take partial research leave from Tufts and work on western monarchs. I have been about half-time at Tufts and half-time at UC Davis." "I am grateful to Neal and the Entomology Department for hosting me during this extended stay!" she added.
Crone is a co-principal investigator (PI) with PI Cheryl Schultz, associate professor of biological sciences at Washington State University and co-PI Sarina Jepson, endangered species program director, Xerces Society, on a federal grant, "Western Monarch Breeding Phenology" (awarded May 2017-June 2020, with the potential for annual renewal). The grant was funded through the Department of Defense's (DoD) Natural Resources Program, DoD Legacy Program.
Of her research, Crone says "My research focuses on population ecology, especially of plants and insects, and plant-animal interactions. Specifically, I am interested in how environmental changes translate to changes in population dynamics: For example, is there a simple, linear matching of changes in resources to abundance of consumers, or do interactions among individuals and species moderate these responses? Much of my research also involves developing novel quantitative approaches to predict long-term dynamics from small scale observations and experiments. Current projects include studies of butterflies, bees, perennial wildflowers, sugar maples, and acorn-granivore interactions. Past projects include some of the best documented examples of cyclical dynamics in plant populations and spatial metapopulation dynamics in animal populations. I was also one of the first ecologists to adapt generalized linear mixed models to estimate variance terms for stochastic population models."
Her honors and awards are many and varied:
- Project of the Year Award, SERDP (Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program) 2018
- Foreign Member, Finnish Academy of Science and Letters (elected 2017)
- Vice Chair / Chair, Theoretical Ecology Section, Ecological Society of America, 2010-2012
- Ecological Research Award, Ecological Society of Japan, 2014
- Fulbright Fellowship, 2007-2008
- National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Fellowship in Biosciences Related to the Environment (1996-1997)
- U.S. Department of Energy Graduate Fellowship for Global Change (1991-1995)
- Baldwin Speece Award (College of William and Mary, for scholarship/service in ecology, 1991)
How did you get interested in science? Was there an "ah ha" moment?
I was in an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program studying plant-insect interactions in 1990. The thing that made me want to go to grad school was the fun puzzle of designing an experiment AND figuring out how to interpret the data - I had collected data on beetle feeding rates, and when I didn't know how to analyze them my advisor said "read a statistics book" ... so I did--since then I have always especially loved the puzzle of matching models to data.
From an earlier age, I have always enjoyed being outdoors, which is probably why I chose to study biology. But that was the moment when I knew I would enjoy a life of research.
Some of your major accomplishments?
From an applied ecology perspective, the biggest is helping the Fender's blue butterfly move from being listed as endangered to nearly ready for down-listing. From a basic ecology perspective, I figured out the ecological interpretation of variance terms in mixed models as estimates of spatial heterogeneity and environmental stochasticity, and worked out one of the best examples of how mast-seeding species are synchronized by their pollinators.
What fascinates you about monarchs?
The possibility that we can recover the western monarch population from its recent steep decline to being abundant again. This should be a problem we can fix.
What do you like best about science?
The puzzle of matching models to data and the possibility of saving species from extinction.
Any scientists in the family?
My sister is an astronomer. My dad was a math professor. Before him, though, no one in the extended family had even gone to college.
What do you do in your leisure time?
I once gut-renovated a house (with help from carpenters, but doing some of the work myself), I am very proud of my urban pollinator garden in Somerville (near Boston, Mass., and I am a good enough trombonist to (just barely) keep up with my trombonist friends.
I am waiting to find out whether our monarch funding will be extended or whether I will go back to a regular teaching schedule at Tufts. Even if I go back to "full-time" teaching, I am sure I will be doing western monarch and bumble bee research for the indefinite future, and will continue to be at least partly bicoastal.
(Editor's Note: the Xerces Society's site-by-site monarch count data is available at https://www.westernmonarchcount.org/data/. This covers all years since the first count in 1997.)