by Paul Wolterbeek, Volunteer Coordinator
Four years ago Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park’s Education Coordinator, Chris Kline and a small cadre of Arizona State Parks volunteers began sticking tiny blue adhesive tags on the hindwings of Monarch butterflies, which were subsequently released in hopes of sightings, recoveries and a mapping project to better understand the delicate insects’ migration.
More than 3,000 marked monarchs later, the most farflung recoveries have come back from Mexico City! Research continues during the summer and fall of 2008, with training sessions and field work planned across Arizona: from the cool higher elevations of Springerville to the Canelo Hills, Santa Cruz County, and eastwards to the the Blue River boundarylands near New Mexico off state route 191 below Hannagan Meadow.
The Southwestern Monarch Migration Research Project is aiming to learn more about Monarch butterfly migration patterns. Volunteers help tag the butterflies. Photograph courtesy Chris Kline.
“The focus of this year’s work is two-fold: first, we want to explore the edges of the state better, hence trips to the Blue River, Hualapai Mountains, and Jacob Lake. Secondly, we want to learn more about the travel corridors these insects use within the state. Our training events are free, but I do ask that participants have a serious interest in being a part of the Southwest Monarch Study project either through tagging monarchs, looking for tagged monarchs, or monitoring milkweed populations for monarch caterpillars,” said Kline.
On past trips participants have camped together at Forest Service group use sites, or arranged to stay at “Butterfly Friendly” bed and breakfasts in Southern Arizona such as the Portal Peak Lodge and the San Pedro River Inn near Palominas.
“The Southwestern Monarch Migration Research Project is an example of citizen science, with schools and butterfly enthusiasts trained to tag and release Monarchs to assist with migration research,” said Kline. “Santa Cruz and Cochise Counties boast some of the best monarch habitat in Arizona.”
“How do we tag? Of course, the first step is to catch the little buggers, which is easier said than done,” said Kline. “The tag is a circular adhesive label, 5/16 of an inch in diameter. On the tag is printed a tag number and an email contact address. The tag is placed on what is called the discal cell, located on the underside of either hindwing. Out of habit, I generally tag the left hindwing. We then record data before we let the monarch go, including the butterfly’s sex, tag number, and general condition of the monarch. Then the monarch is released. We also record location — by GPS coordinates if we can get them — and what the monarch was doing when we caught it.
Last year we learned a lot about the nectar sources that monarchs use as they travel through the state. This year we will be watching patches of thistle, sunflower, and rabbitbrush very closely,” Kline added. “Why are we doing this? At this point, very little is known about monarch butterfly migration through the southwest US and northern Mexico. What little is known is based largely on flimsy evidence and anecdotal observation … like ‘I was in Guadalupe Canyon and saw a monarch fly over the fence into Mexico’. Who knows, two hours later that monarch may have flown back into the US and proceeded on to California! As far as I know, we are the only tagging program currently in the southwest.”
It has been accepted in the scientific community that Monarchs living east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to the Transvolcanic Range around Mexico City. Monarchs living west of the Rocky Mountains generally migrate to the coast of California. Arizona’s placement below the Rockies begs the question: Do our Monarchs go west to California, south to Mexico, or do they stay in Arizona? At the present time, the scientific community does not know where southwestern Monarchs migrate or if they migrate at all. It is possible that they find Arizona to be home sweet home throughout the year because of the relatively mild winter climate in many parts of the state.
“According to currently accepted migration theory, monarchs west of the Continental Divide migrate to California, east of the Divide to Mexico. I suspect this theory is wrong since all three of our long-distance recoveries have been in Mexico, not California. There is a growing movement that believes monarchs west of the divide and roughly east of a line from Boise, Idaho to Yuma, Arizona actually migrate south through Arizona to Mexico. But three recoveries do not provide enough contradictory evidence, hence the reason we continue to tag.”
The Southwest Monarch Study hopes to fill in gaps in the scientific knowledge of the migration of Monarch Butterflies in Arizona. With the help of volunteers, we hope to expand our tagging in Arizona. We will then track the butterflies by mapping where and when the tagged Monarchs are recovered. Hopefully, over time, we will be able to gather enough evidence to challenge the currently accepted theory. It’s a challenging project, and one which has united Boyce Thompson Arboretum with the Desert Botanical Garden and also schools throughout Arizona.
Teachers and classes have participated in tagging field trips, and are helping raise awareness of the project in hopes of spurring reports of sightings and tag recoveries. To learn more about butterflies in general (and monarchs in particular), attend the once-amonth guided butterfly walk that Mr. Kline and volunteers lead through the gardens around the Arboretum.
And if you spy a monarch butterfly with a distinctive blue tag — or want more detail about the 2008 monarch research trips — call Chris Kline at (520) 689-2723.
2008 Monarch Field Trip Dates
- Jacob’s Lake, Aug. 12-15
- Springerville, Aug. 16
- Canelo Hills, Aug. 30
- Hereford, Sept. 6
- Canelo Hills, Sept. 14
- Blue River, Oct. 2-4
- Hualapai Mountains, Oct. 15-17
- Perkinsville, Oct. 18
- Sonoita, Nov. 1
- Alamo Lake
- Buckskin Mountain
- Cattail Cove
- Lake Havasu
- River Island
- Yuma Quartermaster Depot
- Yuma Territorial Prison
- Dead Horse Ranch
- Fort Verde
- Red Rock
- Riordan Mansion
- Slide Rock
- Verde River Greenway
- Boyce Thompson Arboretum
- Fool Hollow Lake
- Lost Dutchman
- Lyman Lake
- Tonto Natural Bridge