While I was busy celebrating the first birthday of the Texas Butterfly Ranch last week, Monarch Watch was preparing for the 20th season of its citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging program.

Back in the fall of 1992, long before crowd-sourcing on the internet, the tagging program was born.  The program outsources Monarch butterfly research, bringing citizen science and the magic of Monarchs to novice lepidopterists and nature lovers from Mexico to Canada.

Monarch Watch's Tagging Program: 20 years young!

Monarch Watch’s Tagging Program: 20 years young!

How does it work? 

Volunteers from all over North America purchase “tags” from Monarch Watch.  When Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico each fall, these citizen scientists remove a round sticker from its backing, place it over the discal cell of a netted butterfly, hold for two seconds, then release the creature after recording its sex and tag number.

The tags, imprinted with a unique code and a toll-free phone number for reporting discoveries, cover less than a centimeter on the butterfly’s hindwing and weigh less than .01 of a gram.  They’re printed on polypropylene with permanent, specialized inks designed to last throughout the butterfly’s journey.   
The data collected is then mailed to Monarch Watch where it makes its way into the Monarch Watch Recovery Database, to be cross referenced against recovered tags.  Thanks to the web, the database is easily searchable.

More than a million Monarchs have been tagged since the founding of the program, says Jim Lovett, Program Assistant at Monarch Watch. About 200,000 tags are sold each year and about half that many Monarch butterflies are tagged–100,000.

Exact historical figures are hard to cite “until we whip our database into shape” says Lovett, but on average about 1,500 –1.5 percent–of tagged butterflies are recovered at their sanctuaries in Michoacan, Mexico.  I have personally enjoyed 20 recoveries.

Why do we tag Monarch butterflies?

Scientists are still working on many puzzling questions about Monarchs. How, exactly, do these third and fourth generation butterflies, who have never visited their ancestral roosts, find their way to the same patch of Mexican mountainside each year?

Happy Birthday Monarch Watch tagging program!

Happy Birthday Monarch Watch tagging program!

Is it the sun that guides them?  An internal compass driven by magnetic fields? Perhaps pheromones, those mysterious chemicals that animals and plants exude but humans can’t detect, play a role?  How do these tiny creatures navigate mountains, forests, streams and meadows to overwinter in the same several acres as their great, great, great grandparents?

We still don’t know.  But aren’t these fun questions to ponder?

Scientists at the University of Kansas and elsewhere continue to seek the answers, which shed light not only on the Monarch butterfly migration in particular, but conservation, climate change and sustainability issues in general.

“The basic goal of the tagging program is too enumerate the dynamics of the migration,” says Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch.  “We hope to better understand the origins of Monarchs, the areas or regions of monarch production, year-to-year differences in populations, to enumerate pathways, and determine survival as a function of latitude and longitude, and more.”

All true, yet perhaps just as important as the data trove is the fact that through the tagging program tens of thousands of people connect intimately with one of the most remarkable natural events on the planet. Once touched by Monarch magic, preserving the Monarch migration and promoting sustainable agricultural, environmental and gardening practices becomes imperative.   It’s not a big leap from Monarch Maniac to environmentalist.

Your help, your data, your time and attention are needed, so if you haven’t already,  get busy and buy your 2011 tags.  Don’t be shy about kicking in a few extra bucks, either.   Lovett says the tagging program doesn’t pay for itself, so extra resources are greatly appreciated and will be put to good use.

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