“The experience on the rig was certainly an unforgettable one…to see the cloud coming from all around in a mass that settled on every available space from the top of the derrick to the floors. Everything was covered…. There were butterflies on top of butterflies. The deck hands were busy with wash-down hoses and had to keep it up to be able to handle the gear while drilling. Some of the older hands said it was a yearly occurrence in the area.”
–Mrs. Hylma Gordon of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as told to Bryant Mather and published in News of the Lepidopterists’ Society (July/August 1990), No. 4, page 59:
Dr. Tracy Villareal is atypical in the butterfly world. He’s a PhD–but not in entomology. He’s a butterfly breeder–but as a marine biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, he spends his days looking at small marine plants called phytoplankton
rather than coaxing caterpillars to morph to the next stage. Dr. Villareal and his partner Dr. Barbara Dorf, who serves as a Fishery Biologist at
Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. along the Gulf, operate the Big Tree Butterflies farm in Rockport, Texas, when they’re not pulling duty at their full-time jobs.
So it seems the perfect marriage of passion and profession for Villareal to develop an app to track Monarch butterflies crossing the ocean–that is, the Gulf of Mexico. “As an oceanographer I can’t bring much to bear in the terrestrial world, but this is flying over water,” he said in a series of conversations discussing his latest project.
As if migrating 3,000 miles were not impressive enough, evidence suggests that Monarch butterflies, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, cross the vast 450+ mile expanse of the Gulf of Mexico each year to make their famous trek to Michoacán in the mountains of Mexico. Another scientist, Baton Rouge-based Gary Noel Ross, who holds a PhD in entomology, documented the existence of myriad Monarch roosts on oil rigs as late as 1993.
Dr. Villareal heard about the ocean crossings via the DPLX list, a listserv for butterfly enthusiasts, and began researching the idea of verifying whether or not the phenom continues today.
Given the lack of population on oil rigs, Dr. Villareal figured the best way to collect data would be to develop a very simple app that oil rig workers, fisher persons, even helicopter pilots might use to collect data on the whereabouts of Monarch butterflies. The app would register and automatically geolocate the datapoint, which would load to the cloud and populate a map, providing a real-time picture of where Monarchs are congregating at sea. The app would work in a similar fashion to the well-utilized Journey North app, but it could go global and would be cloud-, rather than server-based.
“This needs to be as simple as possible,” said Dr. Villareal by phone. “I don’t want (oil company) management out there telling people this is too distracting.”
But will oil rig workers take the time to contribute citizen science data? It wouldn’t be the first time.
Photos published in the Southern Lepidopterist Society newsletter by Dr. Ross, taken in the 90s, show oil rig workers netting butterflies. See below.
Dr. Ross supports the introduction of technology to the phenomenon he labeled the “Trans Gulf Express.”
“Technology has a lot to offer for field biologists,” said Dr. Ross via email, adding that if Dr. Villareal’s project gets underway and the app widely embraced, good data will be harvested that can be easily analyzed using digital tools. “At the time of my work I had to rely on helicopter pilots and rig workers calling in to me at my location,” he recalled. Dr. Ross offered that he personally thinks that Monarchs continue to cross the Gulf.
Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas-based citizen scientist program that tags Monarch butterflies, agrees.
“As long as there are Monarchs, they will appear from time to time on rigs in the Gulf,” said Dr. Taylor. Dr. Taylor and Monarch Watch are partners in the venture, kicking off a fundraising effort to raise $8,000 for Villareal’s app with a $4,000 matching grant–half the total. The funds will be used to take the app beyond the development phase. “It may help us learn more about the how and why,” said Dr. Taylor. “The survival question will be more difficult to answer,” he said.
Want to help? Check out the fundraising campaign, Tracking Monarch Butterflies on Offshore Oil Platforms, which launched today on Hornraiser, a University of Texas- sponsored crowd funding platform.
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