Texas Comptroller's office provides update on Monarch butterfly research, ESA status

About 35 people attended the second Monarch Butterfly Task Force working group meeting in Austin on Thursday, December 17, to hear updates from the Texas State Comptroller’s office on the status of research and assessing whether or not to recommend the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Late season UTSA Monarch
UTSA is growing A LOT of milkweed. Here, late season Monarch, 12/8/2015 at the UTSA greenhouse. Photo courtesy UTSA.
In Texas, the Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. It’s charge: assist landowners, industries and local communities in working with endangered species issues and assessing their economic impact on the state.  Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature fund the effort, lead by Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio.
Since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in August of 2014, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls under the Task Force’s jurisdiction.
Dr. Gulley warmly welcomed the crowd with the prediction:  “I think we’re in for a very interesting meeting.”
And it was.  Dr. Janis Bush of the University of Texas at San Antonio kicked off the 9 AM session with updates on the $300K research grant awarded her in June to inventory milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant, in the state of Texas.
UTSA's Dr. Janis Bush is leading the $300K research grant. Courtesy photo
UTSA’s Dr. Janis Bush is leading the research. Courtesy photo
The Lone Star State has been deemed critically important to the health of the Monarch butterfly migration since the butterflies must pass through the “Texas funnel” coming and going on their epic migration to and from their roosting grounds in MIchoacán in the spring and fall.  Monarchs often lay the first generation of eggs in the multigeneration migration here; in autumn, they use Texas as a major nectar stop for fueling their long journey.
About 24 UTSA research associates, students and volunteers have already completed two milkweed surveys under Dr. Bush’s direction–one in July and another in October-November.   The study’s east-west transect stretches from PIneland to Ozona and the north-south from Wichita Falls to Alice.  Field crews stopped every 10 miles to survey the roadside for milkweed over several days. The research hopes to replicate the first such survey done by Dr. William Calvertt in 1996.
“This is just a snapshot in time” Bush said more than once.  She also mentioned that the “pattern between precipitation and milkweed is not clear….If you increase the amount of moisture in Austin, you don’t increase the number of hectares [of roosting Monarch butterflies} in Mexico.”
The UTSA team is also growing a lot of milkweed at a newly constructed UTSA greenhouse, said Bush–six native species as well as the controversial Monarch butterfly favorite, Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed.   The team aims to better understand what species Monarch butterflies prefer, seed viability and germination rates, soil, light and nutrient requirements, and drought tolerance.
Bush said she was surprised to learn that rats eat milkweed, something that butterfly breeders and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have noticed for years.  Two different kinds of rats–a native cotton rat and nonnative Norwegian rat–made unwelcome visits to UTSA’s newly constructed milkweed greenhouse and decimated the plants.  “We don’t know if they got sick,” said Bush, alluding to the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides found in milkweed that make Monarch butterflies unsavory to predators, “but they seem to like it.”
The UTSA research will also take a look at fire ant impacts on Monarchs and land management best practices.   For example, what effect does mowing have on milkweed?  How does milkweed respond to burning?  Bush also shared with the group San Antonio’s recently named status as the first and only Monarch Champion city by the National Wildlife Federation.  Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last week, making San Antonio the first city to adopt all 24 NWF recommended actions that aim to preserve and increase pollinator habitat.
“I’ve never seen the excitement for a species that I’ve seen with the Monarch,” said biologist Russell Castro of the USDA National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), following  Dr. Bush.  Castro described the NRCS Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project, which works with private landowners to increase pollinator habitat in Texas.  Budgeted for $4 million nationwide in 2016, “not that much money for Texas when you get down to it,” said Castro, “Monarch butterflies are the best thing going for conservation on the ground.”
ESA process
The process for getting a species listed is convoluted and takes years. Graphic via USFWS
Then Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, took the podium to offer a quick update on the status of the Monarch’s endangered species status listing.
At the moment, we are in the status review phase, which means USFWS is reviewing information and research to determine whether or not the listing of the Monarch as “threatened” is warranted. At some time in 2017 or 2018, USFWS will rule whether the listing is warranted or not.  Lawsuits could delay the process further, or make the listing happen more quickly,  she said.
Finally, the session closed with Cary Dupuy of the Comptroller’s office explaining future funding opportunities and likely areas of research focus.
Sometime in early 2016, a Request for Proposal will be circulated and published in the Texas Register inviting public universities to apply for grants. (Gulley pointed out that the Comptroller’s office is not obliged to issue RFPs, but in the interest of transparency, is doing so.)  Subjects likely to be given serious consideration include best ways to eradicate red imported fire ants, as well as research on answering the intriguing question: “What’s going on with the fifth generation of Monarchs?” said Dupuy.
Got questions? Edith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch. Photo courtesy Edith Smith
Monarch butterfly laying eggs.   Apparently, lates season Monarchs ARE reproductive. Photo courtesy Edith Smith
For years scientists believed that Monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico late in the season were not reproductive.  Conventional wisdom said migrating Monarchs  suspended reproduction to conserve energy for the long flight to Mexico by assuming diapause, which is a state of suspended development of the reproductive organs.
Yet many of us have witnessed late season Monarchs engaging in reproduction as well  laying their eggs on any milkweeds they can find, often bearing fifth and sometimes sixth generation offspring well into November and sometimes December.
This information has been collected anecdotally and through various citizen science efforts, including the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project and Monarch Watch.  Dupuy suggested that scientific research would be helpful in determining the reality of the situation. Do the offspring of those late season Monarchs migrate, or do they become local residents?  With climate change and more milkweeds available later in the year, the question will become even more interesting.

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12 Responses

  1. Dianna
    | Reply

    I live in Kingwood, Texas and knew I had one last chrysalis on my milkweed but just noticed today (23 December 2015) I now have nine caterpillars. Don’t think I have enough milkweed for all of them 🙁

    • Steph
      | Reply

      PLEASE HELP!!! I am in dire need of established milkweed plants (I know it’s totally out of season). This is my first year of trying to help the Monarchs and I have about 20-ish Monarch cats and am afraid there is not going to be enough milkweed to “see them thru”, for lack of a better term. This milkweed plants is as tall as I am, is still bushy and blooming, but is getting really thin. Any suggestions? I thought it was too late in the season but the warm weather must have delayed the laying of eggs. I’m in the Houston, TX area.

      • Linda Ross
        | Reply

        Hi, Steph! I’m in Houston.Looks like we are in the same situation. Although I have a lot of butterfly weed growing wild in the ground, there won’t be enough to feed all the caterpillars I found on December 26th.
        There were also a bunch of teeny tiny ones, maybe
        1/8th inch long. If I hadn’t had my magnifying reading glasses on, I would never have seen them. Amazing.
        Anyway, there just isn’t anything else I can do, except
        hope that somehow one or two make it thru and be better prepared next year.

        • Steph
          | Reply

          Hey Linda! After my frantic post on New Years Eve, I went to the Dollar Tree and bought some plastic Tupperware type containers with lids. (New Years Eve – – Yup, real party girl!) Then brought in seven of the larger caterpillars and built them a habitat. I bring in milkweed from the backyard to feed them. I figured if I could at least save a few then it’s more than I saved last season! Well, two of them are in that “J” formation already. I’m so excited! I can see that three more are on the lids of the containers doing this weird stretch thing. If anyone has any advice for raising monarchs in containers, your comments are more than welcome.

  2. craig the butterflyman
    | Reply

    please google jeff glassberg tropical milkweed, most of you know as a PHD and expert he disagrees with most of what is said about tropical milkweed by others Its a fact monarchs lay eggs in warm weather no matter what species. THE AVAILABILITY OF ALL KINDS OF MILKWEED on the Texas landscape in the fall and winter months when weather is above frezing needs to be quantified. as Texans we need to start our own tagging program to collect our own data on fall breeding monarch offspring in our state

    • Linda
      | Reply

      Craig, I’m new to this. Thank you so much for your post. I googled Jeff Glassberg and that led me to a couple of more people too. Great information.
      Really appreciate it!

  3. John Lingenfelder
    | Reply

    West Plano Area. Very intereste to read about rats liking milkweed. I had several dozen tropical and a few green milkweed growing in my very small area (<400 sq ft). Could not figure out why the leaves of all were being eaten almost to the crown of every plant. The result was very few monarchs surviving even with intense egg-laying throughout season. I guess this winter I'm going to figure out how to address getting rid of the family of field rats that are in this area. (Was hoping for live & let live, but going to try catch & release – to where some local bobcats are known to prowl)

  4. Kathleen Murray
    | Reply

    I live in southern Brazoria County and as of Dec. 1, 2015 I had approximately 50 Monarch caterpillars in various clumps of Tropical Milkweed. Today I count about 20-25 chrysalises and a few cats in the “J” position. I’ll be chopping down the plants over the weekend in an attempt to surprise the OE parasite.

    • Linda Ross
      | Reply

      Thanks for the reminder about chopping down the plants because of the parasite. Will also do this weekend!

    • Emily
      | Reply

      Please tell me you will take the chrysalis and cats OFF the plants before chopping them.

      • Linda Ross
        | Reply

        Ha ha ha! A little Christmas cheer!
        Came across this Friday and don’t remember ever seeing it before:
        Psalm 50:10
        For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.
        Looks like we are taking care of business.
        Merry Christmas everyone.

  5. Linda Ross
    | Reply

    Have at least 1 Monarch Butterfly laying eggs on my yellow milkweed. Had about 20 caterpillars 2 weeks ago. Here it is, December 18th. Live near Buffalo Bayou , close to Wayside and Navigation in the Magnolia subdivision.

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