It's one of the highest honors a scientist can receive. Members are elected to NAS in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.
Agrawal received his doctorate in population biology in 1999 from UC Davis, working with major professor Richard "Rick" Karban, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
"Anurag is an inspiration as a scientist and as a person," Karban said. "I've learned a lot from him."
At Cornell, Agrawal is the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He researches the ecology and evolution of interactions between wild plants and their insect pests, including aspects of community interactions, chemical ecology, coevolution and the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.
Agrawal is the author of the celebrated book, Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press. The book won a 2017 National Outdoor Book Award in Nature and Environment and an award of excellence in gardening and gardens from the Council of Botanical and Horticultural Libraries. It was also named one of Forbes.com's 10 best biology books of 2017. Read a review of his Monarchs and Milkweed book from the journal Ecology and read the first chapter here. (You can order the book here.)
As Agrawal said in a Cornell news release, “It's a tremendous honor and totally unexpected. I look forward to representing Cornell and also playing a part in the NAS role of advising the U.S. government on science policy.”
"A key research focus for Agrawal's Phytophagy Lab is the generally antagonistic interactions between plants and insect herbivores," according to the Cornell news release. In an attempt to understand the complexity of communitywide interactions, questions include: What ecological factors allow the coexistence of similar species? And what evolutionary factors led to the diversification of species? Agrawal's group is currently focused on three major projects: the community and evolutionary ecology of plant-herbivore relationships; factors that make non-native plants successful invaders; and novel opportunities for pest management of potatoes. Recent work on toxin sequestration in monarch butterflies was featured on the cover of the April 20 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."
Agrawal holds two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in conservation biology. He joined the Cornell faculty in 2004 as an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, with a joint appointment in the Department of Entomology. He advanced to associate professor in 2005, and to full professor in 2010. He was named the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies in 2017.
A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2012), and recipient of the American Society of Naturalist's E.O. Wilson Award in 2019, Agrawal won the Entomological Society of America's 2013 Founders' Memorial Award and delivered the lecture on Dame Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) at ESA's 61st annual meeting, held in Austin, Texas.
Agrawal was at UC Davis in January of 2012 to present a seminar on "Evolutionary Ecology of Plant Defenses." His abstract: "In order to address coevolutionary interactions between milkweeds and their root feeding four-eyed beetles, I will present data on reciprocity, fitness tradeoffs, specialization and the genetics of adaptation. In addition to wonderful natural history, this work sheds light on long-standing theory about how antagonistic interactions proceed in ecological and evolutionary time."
Members are elected to NAS in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Among those previously elected to NAS: Bruce Hammock, UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology who holds a joint appointment with the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. He was elected to NAS in 1999.
The feral cats on our farm (the progeny of strays dropped off by "imperfect" strangers) became known as "The Look-at-Cats." You couldn't touch, pet or hold them. You could feed them, though, and spay or neuter them--if you could catch them. And you could name them, too. "Look, there's a Look-at-Cat."
Now monarch caterpillars may be the new "Look-at-'Cats."
The troubling decline of monarchs, Danaus plexippus, has led the California Fish and Wildlife to post on its website and issue several mandates:
Conservation Status of Monarch Butterflies
"In 2014, monarchs were petitioned to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. In December 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that listing was warranted but precluded (opens in new tab) by other listing actions on its National Priority List. The monarch is currently slated to be listed in 2024."
"In California, monarchs are included on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's (CDFW) Terrestrial and Vernal Pool Invertebrates of Conservation Priority list (PDF) (opens in new tab) and identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in California's State Wildlife Action Plan. California law (Fish and Game Section 1002) prohibits the take or possession of wildlife for scientific research, education, or propagation purposes without a valid Scientific Collection Permit (SCP) issued by CDFW. This applies to handling monarchs, removing them from the wild, or otherwise taking them for scientific or propagation purposes, including captive rearing. Due to the current status of the migratory monarch population, CDFW has also issued a mortarium on certain activities covered with an SCP. To learn more about obtaining a collection permit, see our SCP page."
What this means, according to biologist Hillary Sardiñas, senior environmental scientist and pollinator coordinator, Wildlife Diversity Program, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is no handling or propagating them, including captive rearing, without a scientific collection permit (SCP).
As she wrote in an email today: "Monarch butterflies are a Terrestrial Invertebrate of Conservation Priority which means that handling or propagating them, including captive rearing, without a scientific collection permit (SCP) is not permitted, as described on our monarch website. We have gotten a number of questions on this topic and are currently developing an in-depth FAQ to help people understand threats to monarchs as well as what is and is not permitted. I am happy to share it with you once it is finalized. Unit then, here are answers to your questions:
- Are monarchs in a backyard considered wild? "Wildlife does not only occur on public lands, species can also inhabit private property, including backyards. Therefore, the permit requirement applies to handling activities wherever monarchs occur."
- Educational use? "A scientific collection permit (SCP) is also required for educational purposes. Therefore, the educator would need to have a valid SCP authorizing them to collect/receive and possess monarchs for this purpose. The person collecting the monarch on their behalf would also need a valid SCP or to be named on the educator's SCP. While monarchs have been an incredible tool to learn about long-distance migration and metamorphosis inspiring children and adults for generations, there are so few migratory monarchs that removing just 10 caterpillars could mean you are impacting 5% of the remaining population (estimated at <2,000 in the last overwintering census). At this time, we do not recommend moving caterpillars indoors for any purpose. If educators want to create a monarch garden so that students can observe adult butterflies lay eggs that develop into caterpillars, that scenario would provide an excellent educational opportunity while contributing to monarch conservation."
As Sardiñas, who holds a doctorate from UC Berkeley and formerly worked for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, points out: "While monarchs used to be abundant, they are now scarce and the western migratory population has a high estimated likelihood of extinction. A shift from past actions that could cause harm to ones known to be beneficial, such as habitat creation, is required to promote their recovery."
You're encouraged to plant nectar sources and milkweed (the host plant) for the monarchs, but don't touch the eggs, caterpillars, chrysalids or adults. The 'cats, which many teachers traditionally collected to show their students metamorphosis and then released them into the wild--and which monarch moms and dads reared to protect from such predators as birds, wasps, spiders and praying mantids (and parasites)---are now "look-at-'cats."
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, spotted a female monarch butterfly at 1:35 today.
As he mentioned in his email: "So, at 1:25 p.m. a female monarch flew directly over my head, roughly 8' off the ground, near the corner of Oak Avenue and 8th Street. It was headed northeast very lazily."
Shapiro noted that Kathy Keatley Garvey saw a monarch in Benicia on Jan. 23, "so this is the second sighting known to me this year in this general area. If there are really only 3000 or fewer overwintered in the whole state, I guess we won the lottery!"
So, the count as we know it:
- Monarch butterfly, gender unknown, flying over 115 West G St, Benicia, on Feb. 23, Garvey sighting
- Monarch butterfly, a male, that the Garveys reared in west Vacaville and released on Feb. 25
- Monarch butterfly, a female, flying near the corner of Oak Avenue and 8th Street, Davis, on March 2, Shapiro sighting
Now some folks are blaming tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, a non-native, as a serious threat in the massive decline of the monarch population.
Don't blame tropical milkweed, agree Shapiro and monarch researcher David James, an entomologist and associate professor at Washington State University (WSU).
James told us in an email: "I have been involved with monarchs for 43 years, and the single, overriding thing that I have learned is that the monarch is a highly adaptable creature! It has an incredible ability to adjust to changing environmental circumstances. In Australia, it took less than 100 years to change its core physiology as part of adaptation to a different climate. Adapting to man-made environmental challenges may take monarchs a while but I believe it can happen."
"I believe that the widespread and intensive use of neonicotinoid insecticides is one likely factor behind the current monarch population decline," James says. "But even with insecticides, insects can develop resistance over generations. The few monarchs that are alive and well in California currently are the survivors, those that have beaten the perils stacked against them. Clearly, we need to try and make life as fruitful as possible for these survivors, to aid in their population recovery. These monarchs will produce progeny that are also ‘fitter' than the general population and we need to ensure that milkweed is there for them, particularly during spring in California."
"The monarch as a species is particularly good at trying different things," James points out. "Thus, while the majority of the population does one thing (like migrate and overwinter), there is always a significant subset exposed to the same environment, that decides to do something different, like not migrate. Most of these of course will die but in some circumstances, some locations, the outcome may be good, giving another option for continuation of the species, should it become necessary. We may be seeing this now with the rise in winter breeding of monarchs in warmer parts of interior California like the LA Basin and SF Bay Area. There is also evidence for the first time of breeding winter monarch survival in far southwestern Oregon."
A post on texasbutterflyranch.com touched on the native/non-native milkweed controversy. "David James takes issue with the loud and persistent claim that non-native milkweeds pose serious threats to monarch butterflies and the viability of their migrations. When asked if he thinks the technically non-native tropical milkweed poses a dire threat to monarch butterflies, James' answer was emphatic."
No, he does not. "Not at all, in fact," he told them.
You can follow David James' research and observations on his group's Facebook page, Monarchs of the Pacific Northwest at https://www.facebook.com/MonarchButterfliesInThePacificNorthwest.
On Jan. 12 James posted a graph showing "the number of observations of monarch larvae/pupae (as recorded on I-Naturalist) in the San Francisco Bay area during November/December for every year since 2015. The graph showed a huge (>5X) increase in observations in 2020 compared to each of the the previous 6 years. I have now extracted data on monarch reports for January 2021 and compared them to the previous six years (see graph below). Once again, the data show a large increase in reports of both adult and immature stage monarchs during the past month in the SF Bay area. In fact, the increase is greater than for Nov-Dec. The average number of larvae/pupae reported on I-Nat during January from 2015-2019 was 1.0. This year the number was 63. Similarly an average of 5.0 adults were reported for January during 2015-19, yet this year there were 58 sightings reported to I-Nat. Of course some of this increase can be explained by increased use of I-Nat in these covid times to report sightings, but I doubt that this explains it all. Interestingly, there were signs last January of an increase in sightings when 10 larvae and 12 adults were reported. But the numbers in January 2021 are on another level."
James' work draws such comments as "You rock, Dr. David James! Thank you for speaking common sense and not regurgitating a hard line which equates to death for the monarchs when milkweed is purposely cut and no milkweed is available for the next generation to consume! I look forward to more findings from you and your honest research reporting. Thank you so much for all you do to help the monarchs thrive not just survive!"
Meanwhile, anyone else see any monarchs flying around the Bay Area and/or in Yolo and Solano counties?
2020 was a troubling year for the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus.
USFWS announced Dec. 15 that the iconic butterfly qualified as an endangered species but resources are not available to place it on the high priority list. Translation: no funding. However, USFWS said the "monarchs' status will be reviewed each year by the agency and conservation efforts will continue."
Still, both the Western population, which overwinters along the California coast, and the Eastern population, which overwinters in central Mexico, are declining rapidly. Since the 1990s, monarchs have declined by approximately 80 percent in central Mexico, and by 99 percent in coastal California, scientists say. The threats impacting the monarchs? "Habitat loss and fragmentation has occurred throughout the monarch's range. Pesticide use can destroy the milkweed monarchs need to survive," USFWS says. "A changing climate has intensified weather events which may impact monarch populations."
Incredibly, 2020 was a very good year for monarchs--the best year yet--in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. We counted more than 300 eggs or caterpillars. We donated some to researchers to establish populations, and we reared some ourselves.
Our entire garden was a'flutter. The monarchs nectared on the milkweed flowers, Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and assorted other flowers.
Monarch butterflies usually lay their eggs beneath the milkweed leaves, but sometimes we see them laying their eggs on flowers and stems. One memorable day in late summer, we spotted four monarch eggs on a milkweed "floral bouquet." We offer the monarchs a choice of milkweed, primarily: narrowleaf milkweed, Asclepias. fascicularis,and showy milkweed, A. speciosa, both natives; and tropical milkweed, A. curassavica, a non-native. ( As recommended, we cut back or remove the tropical milkweed before the migratory season.)
Let's hope that monarchs will fare better in 2021. Check out the Xerces Society's page at https://xerces.org/monarchs and let's do what we can to help.
Yes, monarch butterflies qualify for the Endangered Species list.
But no, we can't protect them because we don't have the money.
That's the gist of what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said today.
USFWS director Aurelia Skipwith announced in a news release: "We conducted an intensive, thorough review using a rigorous, transparent science-based process and found that the monarch meets listing criteria under the Endangered Species Act. However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our higher-priority listing actions. As part of the decision, monarchs' status will be reviewed each year by the agency and conservation efforts will continue."
The monarch population is declining at an alarming rate--both the Western population, which overwinters along the California coast, and the Eastern population, which overwinters in central Mexico. Since the 1990s, monarchs have declined by approximately 80 percent in central Mexico, and by 99 percent in coastal California, scientists say. The threats impacting the monarchs? "Habitat loss and fragmentation has occurred throughout the monarch's range. Pesticide use can destroy the milkweed monarchs need to survive," USFWS says. "A changing climate has intensified weather events which may impact monarch populations."
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, says monarchs are on "life support." (See Bug Squad blog.)
Will there be a time when we no longer see the iconic monarchs fluttering into our yards, laying eggs on our milkweed and sipping nectar from our plants? Will they go extinct like the Xerces blue butterfly, Glaucopsyche xerces, last seen in the early 1940s in the San Francisco Bay area?
What can we do to protect the monarchs from extinction?
We can all do our part by planting milkweed, nectar-rich flowers (especially important during their migration) and avoiding all pesticides. We can also get involved with organizations such as the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which monitors the monarch populations and offers advice and suggestions. See https://xerces.org/monarchs.
As Xerces points out: "The Xerces Society, government agencies, partner organizations, and communities are working across the U.S. to protect and restore habitat for monarch butterflies across a broad array of landscapes, provide workshops and educational resources on monarch conservation, and conduct research—including facilitating community science projects like the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count and the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper."
When the monarchs overwinter, they cluster to keep warm. Is it too much to ask that we humans cluster together throughout the country to protect them from extinction?