(Sentinel photo by Joyce Kaiser)
Naturalist Victoria Shamblen conducted the activity, which involves putting small tags on monarch butterflies to track their migration route to Mexico.
The tagging is done in cooperation with the educational outreach program, "Monarch Watch" based at the University of Kansas, which engages citizen scientists in large-scale research projects. This program produces real data that relate to a serious conservation issue. Monarch Watch gets children of all ages involved in science.
The website, www.monarchwatch.org, provides a wealth of information on the biology and conservation of Monarch butterflies and many children use it as a resource for science fair projects or reports. Additionally, children are encouraged to showcase their research or school projects on the website.
Shamblen noted that the hot, windy day on Saturday, Sept. 3, made it a little more difficult to capture the butterflies.
"They're a lot easier to catch in cool weather," Shamblen said. Participants used nets to capture the butterflies, and then placed small tags with an identification number on the underside of their wings.
"Anyone can be a part of Monarch Watch," Shamblen said. For each butterfly tagged, participants filled out a record sheet, identifying the butterfly as male or female, wild or caught as a caterpillar, where it was caught and the tag number put on the butterfly.
The information is then entered into the data base at the University of Kansas.
"We hope someone in Mexico will find one of our monarchs next year and will contact Monarch Watch," Shamblen said.
She explained that monarchs that make it to Mexico live for nine months, and have offspring on their return trip. "YOu might have five generations of butterflies in a calendar year, but one lasts for nine months," she said.
Shamblen hopes to expand the butterfly tagging and make it an annual event for Plymouth County.
According to information at www.monarchwatch.org, monarch butterflies travel up to 3,000 miles during their migration. They fly in masses to the same winter roosts, often to the exact same trees.
When the late summer and early fall Monarchs emerge from their pupae, or chrysalides, they are biologically and behaviorally different from those emerging in the summer. The shorter days and cooler air of late summer trigger changes. In Minnesota this occurs around the end of August. Even though these butterflies look like summer adults, they won't mate or lay eggs until the following spring. Instead, their small bodies prepare for a strenuous flight. Otherwise solitary animals, they often cluster at night while moving ever southward. If they linger too long, they won't be able to make the journey; because they are cold-blooded, they are unable to fly in cold weather.
There are still many unanswered questions involving the monarch butterfly migration, including how they are able to travel so far, and how they find their overwintering sites each year. Somehow they know their way, even though the butterflies returning to Mexico or California each fall are the great-great-grandchildren of the butterflies that left the previous spring.