Newsroom Midwest Region

Matching monarchs using citizen science

August 24, 2017

Tagged monarch butterfly. Photo by Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS.
Tagged monarch butterfly. Photo by Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS.

In order to conserve the monarch migration in eastern North America, scientists need a thorough understanding of all aspects of this phenomenal journey. They know that roughly the entire fall migration season is 85 days - based on first roost reports and arrival dates at overwintering sites in Mexico from Journey North. Monarchs fly an average of 22 miles a day, traveling only during daylight. Larger monarchs migrate faster than smaller ones. The number of butterflies arriving in the northern breeding range in the summer can highly predict the eventual size of the migration generation (1.7 MB PDF).

However, there are still unknown facts about the monarch’s migration. You can help match the scientists to monarchs. By recording and sharing your monarch observations, you are a citizen scientist and you can contribute to our understanding of the monarch butterfly migration.

Citizen scientists make large-scale studies possible by providing data, time and other resources at continental scales over several years. A 2015 study on citizen science contributions for monarchs showed that 17% of 503 monarch-focused research publications in which new results were presented between 1940 and 2014 used citizen science data.

Monarchs and citizen science have been closely tied for decades. Starting in the 1950s, hundreds of volunteers with Dr. Fred Urquhart’s Insect Migration Association searched for the then mysterious overwintering grounds of migrating monarchs. This tagging project allowed Urquhart to track the flights of individual butterflies, and ultimately led to the 1975 discovery that monarchs from the northern U.S. and southern Canada were overwintering in central Mexico.

Today, thousands of volunteers tag monarchs through Monarch Watch. These dedicated citizen scientists are playing a critical role in answering questions about the fall migration. How do the monarchs move across the continent? How is the migration influenced by the weather and are there differences in the migration from year to year? Scientists need data to answer these questions and they need your help! Only through citizen science efforts will they be able to obtain sufficient information to answer these questions.

Dr. Chip Taylor, Director of Monarch Watch, monitors the status of monarchs each year, and he recently issued his population status for 2017. Based upon this year’s conditions, Dr. Taylor is predicting this fall to be a GREAT tagging season across the eastern monarch migration route.

Be a matchmaker! Play a part in ensuring a future filled with monarchs. Visit the Monarch Joint Venture for listed opportunities to participate in monarch citizen science efforts in the United States.

Monarch migration map by USFWS.
Through citizen science, Dr. Fred Urquhart discovered that monarchs from the northern U.S. and southern Canada overwinter in central Mexico. Download the monarch migration map (1.4 MB PDF).

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