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The Monarch Watch

By Brad Williamson


For the past three years my students have begun the first two weeks of September capturing and tagging monarch butterflies for a collaborative research project, The Monarch Watch. For me, watching these young naturalists chase down a migrating monarch with such enthusiasm is very rewarding. One of my personal goals in teaching is for my students to develop an awareness of the natural world. This project fulfills this goal better than any other exercise I have done in the my classroom. However, this not just a "fun way to start the school year" exercise. It is serious research.


Three years ago, Dr. Orley Taylor from the University of Kansas and I began a nation-wide project to study monarch butterfly migration. The Monarch Watch has now grown to include more than 600 teacher volunteers and their students. My students and others are asked to contribute and collaborate in legitimate science research. Students and teachers capture and tag migrating monarchs with small (3/16" x 1/2") laser-printed, adhesive tags that are glued to the right, hind wing. Each tag includes a return address, a color code, and an identification number. This year I printed over 60,000 tags that were mailed to participants in over 30 states. Data about sex, parasites, weather, butterfly condition are recorded for each monarch. Other less specific data such as roost behavior, nectaring times, nectaring plants and flight vectors are also recorded. All of this data is then compiled at the University of Kansas.

We began the project to study the migration patterns of monarchs. We were unprepared for the enthusiasm the students have for the monarch itself. Monarchs are like whales--people seem to have an emotional attachment to them. It became very clear that in-depth studies of monarch biology, both in the field and the laboratory, have tremendous educational potential. Like Karl von Frisch's bees, the monarch butterfly is a "magic well" for potential research questions--the more each student discovers about the monarch, the more new and exciting questions are revealed.

We now culture monarch butterflies in the laboratory. In late summer the onset of physiological and behavioral changes in monarchs is light and temperature dependent. As day length shortens the reproductive physiology enters diapause (a resting stage) and additional fat reserves for migration are stored. Migrating monarchs can be collected in the fall and held under an 16 hour light--8 hour dark cycle in the laboratory or classroom. Three days are sufficient to break the diapause and stimulate the monarchs to initiate mating. With only a modest investment in lights, timer, cage materials and labor, monarch cultures can be established.

Studies of the monarch life cycle, larval feeding rates, development, physiology, and genetics are possible. An artificial diet has been developed so that a colony of monarchs can be maintained in the lab or classroom for the entire winter.

Due to the research nature of the project the primary focus of grading is a laboratory or field notebook that each student maintains on an individual basis. In addition our exams are in essay form for this material. My students' answers indicate a level of comprehension unmatched by the other, more traditional topics we cover during the year. I am not surprised.

For more information, I can be contacted via e-mail: AEBWilliam@aol.com or visit the Monarch Watch Web site at the University of Kansas.

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