Project Monarch Health: Tracking Disease in Wild Butterflies at a Continent-Wide Scale

By UGA Odum School of Ecology | Sonia Altizer

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North American monarchs are famous for undertaking the longest-distance two-way migration of any insect species in the world, traveling each fall from the U.S. and Canada to winter sanctuaries in the mountains of central Mexico. These iconic butterflies have captured the imagination of scientists and the public. In recent years, migratory monarchs declined dramatically in abundance owing to multiple causes, including habitat loss at breeding and wintering sites. Because monarchs wintering in Mexico declined by 90% during the past decade, they are now being considered for federal protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Monarchs are affected by a debilitating protozoan pathogen called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) that develops inside the bodies of caterpillars. Infected adult monarchs emerge covered in millions of parasite spores, fly less well and live shorter lives than healthy monarchs. Researchers at the University of Georgia are tracking the spread and impacts of the OE pathogen, in part through a citizen science project that empowers people across the country to take part in monarch monitoring and conservation efforts.

What is Monarch Health?

MonarchHealthLogo2Monarch Health is a citizen science project based at the University of Georgia in which volunteers from across North America sample wild monarch butterflies to help track the spread of the OE protozoan pathogen over space and time.  Citizen scientists test monarchs for OE by pressing a clear sticker against the butterfly’s abdomen.  This test does not harm the butterflies.  Samples are sent to our lab at UGA to be examined under the microscope for the presence of protozoan spores.  If a butterfly is infected, many brown, football-shaped spores will be seen scattered in and around the butterfly’s own scales. After processing samples, volunteers hear back from us to learn the infection status of butterflies they monitored.

We also post season summaries of results on our program webpages, www.monarchparasites.org.

The broader mission of Monarch Health is to understand pathogen spread and impacts on monarch butterflies. We also aim to understand how disease patterns are changing in response to human activities, and what actions might mitigate disease spread. We seek to enhance awareness of monarch biology and conservation through the partnership of citizens and scientists.

Who participates?

Volunteers are essential to Monarch Health and other large-scale research projects on monarch butterflies. Monarch Health participants can be people of all ages and skills including families, retirees, classrooms, and nature centers. As of 2015, over 200 volunteers from 24 U.S. states and 3 Canadian provinces have contributed data to Project Monarch Health.

monarch map

Why this project matters:

There are many reasons to care about the future health of monarch populations. Monarchs and other insects like bees and moths are part of a diverse group of pollinators worldwide.  Monarchs monarch pic 4are commonly used in science education and outreach to teach children and adults about nature, metamorphosis, and migration. Many people have emotional and spiritual connections to monarchs. Recent research on the monarch genome showed that migrating monarchs have unique genes that enable them to fly long distances more efficiently. If migratory monarchs are lost, then these genes will disappear with them.

UGA researchers have found that the prevalence of the OE pathogen in wild migratory monarchs has nearly tripled since 2002.  It is possible that this increase has been affected by human activities such as habitat loss and crowding, and future monitoring through Monarch Health can help scientists better understand why.

Crowd funding of $8,000 will support:

  • Distribution of free Monarch Health sampling kits to up to 200 volunteers in 2015-16
  • Lab materials (gloves, sanitation materials, microscope supplies, data books) needed to process samples returned to UGA
  • Development of a mobile app and online data entry system
  • Development of educational videos and materials for outreach events
  • Research experiences for 3 undergraduate student workers to diagnose samples returned to the lab, enter data, and communicate with volunteers during 2015-16

This project was launched in 2006 with support from UGA and a grant from the National Science Foundation.  Because we have no sources of external support for 2015 and beyond, we are presently in need of donor support to continue offering Monarch Health free of charge to volunteers, and to continue tracking infections in wild monarchs.

Future Goals

Our immediate project goals are to support and expand our volunteer participant base, to develop a mobile app and online data entry system for volunteers, and to develop videos and online educational content about pathogen infections in monarchs and other pollinator species for the general public.20140409_2136 Prep Ist release

Important Scientific Discoveries from our Project

Key scientific discoveries using data from the Monarch Health project in recent years include findings that: (1) infection risk in wild monarchs in North America increases from early to late during the summer breeding season, (2) infection risk is higher at sites with greater local densities of caterpillars, and (3) the prevalence of infection is highest at winter breeding sites in the southern US that support monarch year-round reproduction via mild winter climates and the presence of exotic tropical milkweeds. We will continue to explore patterns of infection for wild monarchs, especially to identify the causes of long-term increases in infection over the past decade. These findings are crucial for monarch conservation and habitat management.

Who We Are:

Sonia Altizer picSonia Altizer, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia. For the past 20 years, starting as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, she has traveled the world to study monarch butterfly migration and ecology, and has witnessed first-hand how the numbers of monarchs have dwindled in recent years. Sonia co-edited a book to appear in 2015 titled Monarchs in a Changing World:  Biology and Conservation of an Iconic Insect. At UGA, Altizer and her students run project Monarch Health, now entering its 9th year.  Sonia’s main research focuses on understanding how pathogens affecting wildlife are shifting in response to human environmental change, with her students working on diseases affecting bats, birds, rodents and wild primates.

Project coordinator Sonia Altizer recently presented a TEDxUGA talk on what’s causing monarch declines and why we should care. Click here to view the presentation.

 

Dara Satterfield picDara Satterfield is a doctoral student studying monarch butterflies and infectious disease ecology at the University of Georgia. Fascinated with animal migration, she has been privileged to study monarchs in all stages of their annual journey, from their Midwest summer breeding locations to their Mexico overwintering sites. For the past three years, Dara focused on monarchs in the southern coastal U.S., where some butterflies skip the migration and breed year-round. As the program coordinator for Monarch Health, Dara collaborates with citizen scientists and others to monitor disease in monarchs and to understand how to improve milkweed habitat.

 

Undergraduate researchers:  Each year we work with 2-4 undergraduate research assistants, training them in the identification of parasite spores and in Monarch Health protocols.  These students assist in mailing kits to volunteers, processing samples returned to our laboratory, and communicating to answer questions from volunteers on a weekly basis.  This year, we are thankful to Hayley Schroeder, Emilie Morris, Michael Holden and Sherayar Orakzai for helping us keep project Monarch Health running smoothly.

GivingQuestions

Allison Walters | UGA Odum School of Ecology Allison.Walters@uga.edu  | Development Coordinator | 706.542.6007

 

 

 

 

 

 

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