Monarch tag and release event held at Osborne

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A youth participant holds a tagged monarch butterfly ready for flight during Osborne Nature Center's monarch tag and release event on Sept. 4. (Photo courtesy of Toni Boardman)

By Caroline Rosacker

The monarch butterfly, biologically known as Danaus Plexippus, is a milkweed butterfly. The butterfly's beauty has earned it status as "King of Butterflies," acquiring the name “monarch." 

In recent years this delicate beauty has been in danger of becoming extinct. Human-caused climate change and habitat loss are now threatening the North American monarch with extinction. 

An increase in carbon dioxide levels may even be making milkweed – the monarch caterpillar's only food source – to become too toxic for the caterpillars to ingest. 

Osborne release program

Abbey Harkrader, a Naturalist at Osborne Nature Center – Clayton County Conservation, recognizes the importance of maintaining a healthy monarch population. She created a release program and has been organizing the event on and off since 2009. This year's well-attended event was held on Friday, Sept. 4. 

Harkrader, with the assistance of youth audience members, tagged and released several monarchs. Harkrader carefully held each monarch between her thumb and index finger along the leading edge of the butterfly's forewings and located the discal cell, a large mitten-shaped cell on the hindwings. She placed a tag over the discal cell on the underside of the hindwing of each monarch. This tagging method places the tag close to the center of lift and gravity for the butterfly so as to not interfere with flight or otherwise harm the butterfly.

Adult volunteers recorded the tag code, tag date, gender of the butterfly, and geographic location. This data is submitted to Monarch Watch and added to their database to be used in research.

Monarch life cycle

The life cycle of the monarch butterfly has four stages and four generations. This means four generations of eggs, larvae, pupae and adult butterflies will pass through these life stages within a single year. 

The returning migratory monarch begins the life cycle by laying eggs on milkweed plants in the southern part of the United States. This is the start of the first generation. Within four days, the eggs hatch and form a caterpillar. The larva feeds on the milkweed until it reaches full growth and attaches itself to a stem or leaf by discharging its silk. The process of metamorphosis takes place to transform the caterpillar into a chrysalis and then into a butterfly.

A continuous process of metamorphosis will take place within the next ten days until the fully mature adult butterfly is ready to emerge, take flight and search for food and a mate. 

This first generation lives anywhere from two to six weeks, slowly making its way farther north to lay eggs for the second generation. This process continues in the same manner until the fourth generation.

The fourth generation eggs are laid in the month of August, in close proximity to where the original migrating monarch first took flight. These monarchs will live more than eight to nine months, migrating to the warmer regions of Mexico. 

Preventing extinction

"The winter of 2013-2014 saw a record low in the Mexico overwintering grounds which is measured by how much space they take over in the mountains near Mexico City," explained Harkrader. "That year only about .67 hectares (or 2.5 acres) were used by the migrating monarchs in Mexico. In 2014 local conservation organizations and the United States Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) began a large collaboration to try and bring the monarch back, by studying them and implementing many emergency conservation programs to help them recover."

'They proposed in 2014 that the monarch was in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act and began a recovery campaign while they evaluated their status. Harkrader reported, "The recovery efforts and studies promoted a nationwide effort to bring the monarch back from the brink of extinction. These efforts have been very successful, and by the time the USFWS reviews were accomplished, they had begun to recover, though have only reached the recovery threshold the winter before last (2018-19). The recovery goal is to get the wintering grounds up to 5 hectares or more (12.36 acres)."

"The studies found that the number one problem was habitat. Loss of host milkweeds for the caterpillars and loss of nectar plants needed for the long journey to Mexico, especially during drought years like this season," she said. "They also found that Iowa was in the heart of their breeding and migrating region and the Corn Belt along Interstate I-35 was the most void of needed habitat. The need in central Iowa prompted a statewide effort to return milkweed and prairie plants to ditches, parks, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land, and even small backyard butterfly gardens to provide that critical habitat."

Efforts to build the declining population have been successful. "We are slowly seeing an increase in monarch numbers each year," she noted. "If the weather cooperates – no drought, no bad storms during migration in the spring and fall, and good weather conditions in the mountains of Mexico — we hope the recovery will continue and will have no need to make the monarch an endangered species after all."

Gardening for monarchs

Backyard gardening enthusiasts can help by planting host plants and nectar plants for monarchs. Harkrader recommended, "There are many different varieties of milkweed plants that are available to plant for host plants and several different species of nectar plants. Native plants are best. If I was going to recommend one nectar plant in particular it would be Liatris also called Blazingstar. Having a garden in the middle of town is just as important as a prairie." 

For additional information contact Clayton County Conservation at 563-245-1516, or online at www.claytoncountyconservation.org or find them on Facebook.

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