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Citizen Science Tuesday: Monarchs Journey North

Written by Lisa Feldkamp, senior coordinator, new science audiences, The Nature Conservancy
Reposted with permission from Cool Green Science, The Science Blog of The Nature Conservancy (October 21, 2014)

liatris_01_aug2014_800What is Journey North and Why Should You Participate?

Migrating monarchs are one of nature’s wonders — they can travel up to 500 miles in just three days on their 2,500 mile journey from Mexico to Canada and back again over the course of a year.

And they’re also one of the few creatures that gains weight during migration — from 60mg of lipids (fat) when they start their southward migration to 140mg by the time they reach Mexico—because they glide on the wind instead of flapping.

“They’d never make it to Mexico otherwise,” explains Elizabeth Howard, founder and director of Journey North, which works to track monarch migrations. “In flapping flight, they would burn enough fat that they would starve in just 44 hours. Soaring and gliding they can go for 160 hours.”

But there’s a lot we still don’t know about monarchs. Which is why Journey North is looking for your citizen science observations on the backyard behaviors of this iconic and threatened insect.

Why is Journey North Important?

Monarchs are currently completing their journey south to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. But the migrations get more difficult with each passing year.

The migration and the butterflies are in danger because of threats like climate change and changes in agriculture that have limited the amount of milkweed, a key plant for monarch conservation

In recent years, the population has declined dramatically.

Your observations can help scientists determine the abundance of monarchs and find out if they are overwintering in new locations. The data could help them answer questions like, how do monarchs know when to go to Mexico, how do they know where to fly, and why do monarchs migrate?

Answering questions about when butterflies travel, where they go, and whether or not the timing of their migrations has changed could help scientists to understand how climate change impacts their journey.

It could also help in advising when and where people should plant milkweed.

monarch_fall2014_peak

Monarch Butterfly Migration Map Fall 2014. Courtesy of Journey North.

Journey North is also an excellent source of materials and facts for teachers and kids interested in the monarch migration. Even if they don’t pass by your area, you can track their progress on Journey North.

You can find out how to tell a male from a female or hear the story of a monarch that was blown off course all the way to England!

That’s not common, of course. In fact, migrating monarchs seem like they’re on a mission, according to Howard.

“It’s incredible the way they ‘beeline’ towards Mexico during fall migration,” she says. “When you see a migrating monarch, you know it. No matter how many times I see it I’m amazed. They fly overhead as if following an invisible roadway. One at a time, often a few minutes apart, they follow the same flight path.”

How Can You Get Involved in Journey North?

If you live where there are monarchs, just submit your sightings online.

If you aren’t sure where to find monarchs, here are two pro tips from Howard:

a. Find Nectar

If you want to see fall migration, find a large source of nectar. The best places are farm fields with blooming clover, alfalfa, sunflowers, etc. Stick around until sunset, watch the monarchs carefully, and you’re likely to see them gathering into an overnight roost.

b. Look for Little Butterflies

To find a field that’s rich with nectar you can drive around in your car. Watch for little butterflies — like sulphurs and cabbage whites — flitting above the flowers. They are much more numerous than monarchs and so are good clues that flowers are producing nectar and monarchs might be present.

Keep up with the monarch news or watch the maps to find out when monarchs come through your area.

There are many other things that you can do at home to help monarchs. For instance, plant milkweed, provide nectar plants, and avoid pesticide use.

Follow along with the migration online and get ready to record your observations for next year’s journey north!


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

- See more at Cool Green Science blog. 

Journey North’s Exciting News!

Get  Journey North’s free New Mobile App!

See it, snap it, report it.

Citizen scientists and budding environmentalists can now report sightings of birds, butterflies, and other migrating species from the field to the Journey North network using their iPhone or iPad.  The new app provides tools including maps, a geographic locator, and a function to record and send field notes. App users can take and send photos of their quarry using their camera phone.  By reporting sightings of migrating species, the app user becomes part of a network of more than 900,000 K-12 students who contribute data as they track the season’s advance northward.  An Android version of Journey North mobile is currently in production and will be announced shortly.  download the free app

Journey North, the nation’s premiere citizen science project for children, is a global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change. Participants (including the general public) share observations of animals and changes in the ecosystem. The data feeds into the resource-rich Journey North Web site, which features migration maps dating back to 1997, images and photos of wildlife, video, standards-based lesson plans, classroom activities, and information from scientists about specific species and the seasons.  Journey North is a winner of the Webby award as a best educational site.

Journey North is presented by Annenberg Learner and can be accessed through its Web site. Annenberg Learner is a division of the Annenberg FoundationFlickerLabs is the developer of the Journey North apps.

Journey North Interviews

Saturday, March 24, 2012, Elizabeth Howard got a chance to tell listeners of  The Animal House on WAMU 88.5 about the Journey North citizen scientist program! Read the audio transcript of the interview here: Journey North on The Animal House.

Elizabeth Howard was also interviewed by Vermont Public Radio on April 2. You can hear the interview and read about using Journey North in the classroom from the VPR site.

Check out the Journey North Web site for information about how to get your students involved in tracking animal migrations and the arrival of spring.