May 5 – Spring Has Sprung

Today’s factismal: The annual Monarch migration is underway!

Animal migrations are something of a commonplace miracle. Every year, huge numbers of some species moves from the place where it lives in the winter to the place where it lives in the summer, brightening the lives of those fortunate enough to live someplace in between. Folks in Hawai’i get to see the majestic humpback and grey whales as they migrate from Alaska down to Antarctica and back. Folks in Tanzania to Kenya get to see the wildebeest as they roam the savannah. And folks across the United States get to see the monarch butterfly as it wings its way from Mexico to Canada and back.

The route taken by four generations of monarchs for time immemorial

The route taken by four generations of monarchs for time immemorial

And this year is no exception. Once again, the monarch butterfly migration is on. It takes the monarch four generations to go from its winter habitat in Mexico to the summer plants of Canada and back again. Along the way, they’ll sit and sip on plants in just about every state of the USA. And this year, more than two  million monarchs will make the journey. That’s nearly double the number from last year, which is good news, but down 94% from the high in 1997 when more than 18 million butterflies flew the route. Put another way, the recent high in butterfly population is lower than the previous low.

Monarch butterfly population since 1994

Monarch butterfly population since 1994

Naturally, butterfly lovers aren’t taking the decline lying down. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is spending some $2 million on restoring habitat for the Monarch by planting milkweed and other native plants in more than 200,000 acres spread from California to Iowa to Ohio to Arkansas to Texas; everywhere that Monarchs fly will see an upgrade. They’re also working with more than 750 schools to plant butterfly gardens to be used by the butterflies as a spot to rest, to east, and to lay their eggs and by the teachers and students as a place to observe the wonders of nature close-up. And they have created a conservation fund to encourage farmers and landowners to preserve natural habitats.

A butterfly seeking a good place for its eggs (My camera)

A butterfly seeking a good place for its eggs
(My camera)

So what can you do? Why not plant some milkweed in your garden for the butterflies to roost on? It is a pretty and hardy plant, which means that you can have beauty without having to spend a lot of time on it. And why not register any butterflies that come your way with one of the many projects at Monarch Joint Venture? You’ll help us keep track of everyone’s favorite butterfly and have an opportunity to learn more about the other winged wonders in our skies!
http://monarchjointventure.org/get-involved/study-monarchs-citizen-science-opportunities/

November 17 – The Big Sleep

Today’s factimsal: Every year, Monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico to the Great Lakes and back again; the journey takes four generations to complete!

Yes, today is a repeated factismal. And that’s because it is one of those things that is so amazing that you simply have to repeat it to believe it. Today, while Americans search for antacids and bargains, the great-grandchildren of the Monarch butterflies that left Mexico in the spring are heading back to their winter home. Once there, they will enter a state similar to suspended animation and live that way throughout the winter. Come spring, they will lay the eggs that will become the first generation to head back north.

The route taken by four generations of monarchs for time immemorial

The route taken by four generations of monarchs for time immemorial

Just think about it and you’ll see how amazing the journey is. The Monarch butterflies that are in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas right now will be in Mexico’s forests before the end of December. There they will enter diapause and wait until spring before waking up. (Anyone who has ever tried to wake a teenager can sympathize.) After that, the butterfly will start north and lay eggs along the way. Those eggs will hatch into caterpillars that will turn into the butterflies that actually make it to the Northern United Sates, where the butterflies will spend the summer. Come fall, the children of those summer Monarchs will head south, laying yet more eggs on the way. Those eggs will become the butterflies that actually make it all the way back to Mexico, nearly a year and four generations later.

A Monarch after a rain shower (Image courtesy Journey North)

A Monarch after a rain shower (Image courtesy Journey North)

But for some reason, the number of butterflies that mange the trip each year is decreasing. Is it climate change? Is it changes in land use? Is it a natural fluctuation? We simply don’t have enough information to decide. But you can help gather that information. Right now, the folks at the Xerces Society are looking for volunteers to go out and count butterflies (this is easier than it sounds like). By comparing the numbers from year to year and looking at the geographical distribution, they hope to be able to discover why one of our most beautiful butterflies is becoming one of our rarest. To help them, join in on the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Butterfly Count at:
http://www.xerces.org/butterfly-conservation/western-monarch-thanksgiving-count/

February 16 – Blinding A Bat

Today’s factismal: Some moths have long tails that “jam” bat’s sonar.

Ask any biologist and she will tell you that all of life is in an arms race. Things that eat are constantly developing new and better ways to nibble on tasty things and things that don’t want to get eaten are constantly trying to find new and better ways of avoiding the dinner invitation. And perhaps no better example of this exists than the world of moths and butterflies because these lovely lepidoptera (“scaly wings”) are both eaters and eatees.

This butterfly's tongue helps it get fed without getting bogged down (My camera)

This butterfly’s tongue helps it get fed without getting bogged down
(My camera)

We all know about the Monarch butterfly and its ingenious use of the milkweed plant. By nibbling on milkweed leaves as a caterpillar, Monarchs make themselves inedible as adults and advertise that fact with their bright red and black coloring. But they are hardly the only example in the fluttering world. Consider the tongue of most butterflies and moths. So long that it can’t even fit back in their mouth, the tongue is a hollow, flexible drinking straw. They’ve developed these over-sized tonsil ticklers not because they want to give the world’s biggest Bronx cheer but because they were fighting with plants. You see, many butterflies and moths get their food as adults from the nectar hidden in plant flowers. The plants put out the nectar to attract these critters with the hope that some of the plant pollen will get carried to the next flower where it will start the next generation of flora. But pollen is heavy for a critter as small as a butterfly, so they developed long tongues to allow them to sip from the flower without getting near the pollen. The plants respond by growing longer flowers and before you know it you’ve got the butterfly tongue we know and laugh at.

The long tails of these moths may jam bat sonar (My camera)

The long tails of these moths may jam bat sonar
(My camera)

And lepidoptera don’t just nibble on things. They also get nibbled on. Some, like the Monarch, adapt by eating poisonous plants. Other adapt by flying at night when there are fewer critters out there eating little fluttering things. But that’s when bats feed and bats like butterflies and moths just fine, thank you very much. So some moths have adapted to the attack of bats by developing long tails. These tails flutter as the moth flies in the night, which then scatters the bat’s sonar; instead of hearing a sharp “ping!” indicating where the moth is, they hear a fuzzy “pong” that gives them less of an idea where the bug might be flying.

If you’d like to learn more about the butterflies and moths of the world and maybe help with a citizen science project that aims to get a picture of every single one, then why not flit over to Butterflies and Moths of North America?
http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/get-involved

 

February 10 – Walking On Air

Today’s factismal: The US government has begun a $3.2 million program to help save the Monarch Butterfly!

Today there is good news out of Washington, DC! The US Fish and Wildlife Service has begun a $3,200,000 program to help save the Monarch Butterfly. Before we get into the details of the program, let’s get the obvious out of the way: yes, this is needed. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Monarch butterflies fly from where they were born to a place they have never seen in order to lay their eggs. Even better, Monarchs can act as an early warning system of environmental changes. And, of course, it is just plain pretty. But lately there’s been something wrong with the Monarch butterfly ; where there used to be billions of them winging their way each year, now we have just a few hundred thousand. We don’t know why the population has declined and if it is permanent. Is it climate change? Is it changes in land use? Is it due to parasites? Is it a natural fluctuation? We simply don’t have enough information to decide.

Monarch population over the years [Data from Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONAP)]

Monarch population over the years
[Data from Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONAP)]

But given the strong decline in the number of Monarchs, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has taken the first step in helping to preserve the species. They’ll spend some $2 million on restoring habitat for the Monarch by planting milkweed and other native plants in more than 200,000 acres spread from California to Iowa to Ohio to Arkansas to Texas; everywhere that Monarchs fly will see an upgrade. They’ll also work with more than 750 schools to plant butterfly gardens to be used by the butterflies as a spot to rest, to east, and to lay their eggs and by the teachers and students as a place to observe the wonders of nature close-up. The rest of the money will create a conservation fund to encourage farmers and landowners to preserve natural habitats.

A Monarch after a rain shower  (Image courtesy Journey North)

Will the Monarch soon be no more? (Image courtesy Journey North)

If you don’t want to wait for the government to solve the problem, why not plant some milkweed for the Monarchs in your neighborhood to feast on? Despite the name, milkweeds are beautiful and colorful plants that can brighten up any garden. To order seeds, head to your nearest nursery or flit your browser to:
http://www.livemonarch.com/free-milkweed-seeds.htm

January 6 – Good News, Bad News, Butterfly News

Today’s factismal: The US Fish and Wildlife Service is considering putting the Monarch butterfly on the endangered species list.

The Monarch butterfly is one of Nature’s marvels. It flies from where it was born to a place it has never seen in order to lay its eggs. It feasts on a plant that is poisonous to other insects and uses that poison as a natural defense. It can act as an early warning system of environmental changes. And, of course, it is just plain pretty. But there’s been something wrong with the Monarch butterfly of late. Over the past few decades, the number of butterflies has dropped significantly.  In 1996, more than a billion Monarch butterflies spent the winter in Mexico before starting on a journey that would take four generations to complete. By 2007, just a quarter that many lived in Mexico. And last year, there were but 3% of that all time high. The good news is that this year there seem to be many more Monarchs overwintering in Mexico. The bad news is that we don’t know why the population has declined and if it is permanent. Is it climate change? Is it changes in land use? Is it due to parasites? Is it a natural fluctuation? We simply don’t have enough information to decide.

Monarch population over the years [Data from Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONAP)]

Monarch population over the years
[Data from Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONAP)]

 But given the strong decline in the number of Monarchs, some scientific organizations are urging the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the Monarch butterfly to be an endangered species. If that happens, then areas that harbor Monarch butterflies during their flight will be protected and funding will be available for groups that work to preserve the butterfly population. However, that will also make it harder for farmers and other folks to use the land that butterflies pass through. As with most ecological problems, there is no easy answer. But there is a way for you to make your feelings about the matter known! The US Fish and Wildlife Service currently has a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as a protected species open for public comments. To let them know what you think, head to:
http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056

A Monarch after a rain shower  (Image courtesy Journey North)

Will the Monarch soon be no more? (Image courtesy Journey North)

And if you don’t want to wait for the government to solve the problem, why not plant some milkweed for the Monarchs in your neighborhood to feast on? Despite the name, milkweeds are beautiful and colorful plants that can brighten up any garden. To order seeds, head to your nearest nursery or flit your browser to:
http://www.livemonarch.com/free-milkweed-seeds.htm

November 30 – King of the air

Today’s factimsal: Every year, Monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico to the Great Lakes and back again; the journey takes four generations to complete!

Yes, today is a repeated factismal. And that’s because it is one of those things that is so amazing that you simply have to repeat it to believe it. Today, while Americans search for antacids and bargains, the great-grandchildren of the Monarch butterflies that left Mexico in the spring are heading back to their winter home. Once there, they will enter a state similar to suspended animation and live that way throughout the winter. Come spring, they will lay the eggs that will become the first generation to head back north.

A Monarch butterfly flock in migration  (Image courtesy Journey North)

A Monarch butterfly flock in migration (Image courtesy Journey North)

Just think about it and you’ll see how amazing the journey is. The Monarch butterflies that are in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas right now will be in Mexico’s forests before the end of December. There they will enter diapause and wait until spring before waking up. (Anyone who has ever tried to wake a teenager can sympathize.) After that, the butterfly will start north and lay eggs along the way. Those eggs will hatch into caterpillars that will turn into the butterflies that actually make it to the Northern United Sates, where the butterflies will spend the summer. Come fall, the children of those summer Monarchs will head south, laying yet more eggs on the way. Those eggs will become the butterflies that actually make it all the way back to Mexico, nearly a year and four generations later.

A Monarch after a rain shower  (Image courtesy Journey North)

A Monarch after a rain shower (Image courtesy Journey North)

But for some reason, the number of butterflies that mange the trip each year is decreasing. Is it climate change? Is it changes in land use? Is it a natural fluctuation? We simply don’t have enough information to decide. But you can help gather that information. Right now, the folks at the Xerces Society are looking for volunteers to go out and count butterflies (this is easier than it sounds like). By comparing the numbers from year to year and looking at the geographical distribution, they hope to be able to discover why one of our most beautiful butterflies is becoming one of our rarest. To help them, join in on the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Butterfly Count at:
http://www.xerces.org/butterfly-conservation/western-monarch-thanksgiving-count/

June 29 – Fly Away Home

Today’s factismal: Butterflies have been used as ecosystem health monitors since 1975.

Butterflies are fascinating critters. Their unique wingshape allows them to flit from plant to plant with a minimum of effort  while also allowing them to change direction suddenly in order to evade predators. Their feet have special taste buds on them so that they can decide where to lay their eggs. And their antennae double as noses and anemometers, telling them both where the flowers are and how fast (and from where) the wind is blowing.

A black swallowtail butterfly at the Atkinson Prairie Chicken Preserve (My camera)

A black swallowtail butterfly at the Atkinson Prairie Chicken Preserve
(My camera)

But one of the most fascinating things about butterflies is also one of the least known things: they act as living, breathing ecological monitors. Because butterflies are very sensitive to both the types of plants available for food and the climactic conditions, by recording different species seen and counting the number of each species seen an ecologist can learn a lot about how the ecosystem has changed over time. As a result, ever since 1975, ecologists have used a “Pollard walk” to learn how the butterfly population changes by walking the same area at the same time on a regular schedule.

A swalowtail butterfly at the George Bush Park in Houston (My camera)

A swalowtail butterfly at the George Bush Park in Houston
(My camera)

What is really cool about this is that now they’d like you to join in on the fun! At Butterflies I’ve Seen, they’d like you to tell them which butterflies you’ve seen and where you saw them; you can also use the site to create a “butterfly bucket list” of all of the different butterflies you’ve encountered and which ones you still need to meet. They’ll take your data and use it to learn how the butterfly population and ecosystems are changing across the USA. SO flit on over!
http://www.nababis.org/