Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve Tags Migrating Monarch Butterflies

Jan. 02, 2015

APALACHICOLA – The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve completes its 14th year of tagging migrating Monarch butterflies along the Apalachicola causeway bridge. This year, staff and volunteers captured and tagged 1,213 of the long-distance fliers before releasing them to continue their migration to Mexico.

The Monarch butterflies are tagged during the early morning when temperatures are low so that staff can safely collect them with very minimal stress to the butterflies. There is a high concentration of Monarchs that roost on saltbushes in a cold-slumber that allows for easy and safe collection of the insects by hand. The captured Monarchs are kept in large plastic containers until they are each given a feather-light coded tag that includes three letters and three numbers that will associate the Apalachicola tag site with other points of recovery for each butterfly.

“This tagging project helps researchers determine the pathways taken during the butterflies’ long migration from the U.S. to Mexico, which can be up to 3,000 miles long,” said Jennifer Harper, manager of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve. “For example, this year, the Apalachicola Research Reserve team recaptured a Monarch that had been tagged in the St. Marks Refuge in October.”

The migration information is particularly important because it helps researchers determine the influence of weather on the migration and the overall survival status of Monarchs. Research indicates the Monarch population has declined up to 90 percent due to various factors such as habitat loss, land management practices and some types of chemically aided agriculture. The loss of quality breeding habitat due to increased use of herbicide-tolerant crops has been particularly harmful because the butterfly’s host plant (milkweeds) has been essentially eliminated in the agricultural landscape where they were once abundant. Because Monarchs are viewed as a biological flagship species for conservation, monitoring the population also helps to assess habitat loss at local, regional and international levels.

In addition to Monarch tagging, the Apalachicola Research Reserve education staff also conducted five separate Monarch tagging demonstrations with 121 students and staff from Franklin County Schools, grades pre-K through 7. Teaching students about the life cycle (metamorphosis) of butterflies is an excellent strategy to develop their awareness for similar biological processes that occur throughout the natural world.

There are many things people can do to help increase the Monarch population. One of the easiest and most helpful options is to create breeding habitat for Monarchs by planting milkweed that is native to Florida. Native milkweed is the only food source that Monarch butterflies will feed on and there are numerous species of native milkweed to choose from. Host plants that are the easiest to grow in Florida are butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Both are great nectar sources for pollinators, provide breeding habitat and are readily available at plant nurseries.

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