You may have seen monarch butterflies flutter through your neighborhood during their annual migration from Canada to Mexico during the fall months. But now scientists are paying more attention to a different flight path: over the ocean. Are they lost or have they found a new route?
UT researchers have come up with a new way to track the butterflies’ migration pattern. With the help of UT’s crowdfunding program Hornraiser, biological oceanographer Tracy Villareal created a mobile app to gather big data on ocean-bound monarchs.
Scientists have noticed the number of butterflies migrating in recent years has decreased almost by half, from 60 million in 2012 to 33 million in 2014, according to the Washington Post. To learn more, researchers are enlisting the help of citizen scientists to track the survivors.
Crowdsourcing the data helps get a better big picture of the monarch’s biology and migration pattern. Across North America people are already recording butterflies landing in backyards and meadows. But their over-water flights are less closely monitored and not well understood.
Marine Monarchs, a research project out of the UT Austin’s Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, Texas, is asking the question, “Is this part of their migration or just their bad luck to be blown out sea to perish?”
“You may think it’s odd that a marine scientist would look at butterflies,” says Villareal, “but it turns out there is a link.”
Monarchs are thought to avoid flying over water, but there are records of them resting on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. When Villareal realized monarchs were landing in the ocean, he thought his knowledge of wind, weather and large oceanic systems could contribute to the biology of the monarch’s migration.
“Your academic discipline can have blinders,” says Villareal, a professor in the Department of Marine Science. “It is always good to wander into a new area. Find a new perspective.”
Villareal has some theories for why monarchs are migrating over the ocean. “One is that it’s a shortcut across the Gulf of Mexico as part of the annual fall migration,” he says. “The other is that it is accidental as a result of weather.” To determine whether this oceanic voyage is intentional, accidental or just a random occurrence he needs data. The Monarch Migration app, released this fall on iTunes, will gather the data Villareal needs.
The simple app takes about 10 seconds to report a butterfly sighting. Villareal is enlisting help from boaters, fisherman, oil workers and islanders to capture butterflies at sea, but he wants a greater reach — the goal is to get as many people offshore as possible to use the app.
“If I had 10 rigs reporting from offshore, scattered in the northwest Gulf of Mexico, I would be very happy,” he says. (To participate, download the app or contact him directly.)
Understanding monarchs’ migration patterns is important because the butterflies are considered to be a “canary in the coal mine.” Decreasing populations of monarchs could indicate a larger threat to pollinators in general.
“Their fate is tied to other less visible, but critically important insects that pollinate our crops and keep our wild ecosystems intact,” says Villareal.