Co-written by Jennifer Dawson and Rebecca Chandler
Monarch butterflies are an iconic species known for their incredible mass migration across North America each winter — a journey of up to 3,000 miles. However, numbers of monarch butterflies have unfortunately fallen precipitously over the past two decades. Using cutting-edge technology to monitor monarch butterflies may be able to help us learn more about this wonderful species and, ultimately, help us better protect them.
Drones can be a great way to monitor monarch butterflies in flight and visually record the findings. Drones come with advanced GPS tracking systems, which let you track the drone’s activity and flight data from your smartphone. They also allow you to take high-resolution photos for highly accurate data analysis. They’re able to collect data in harsh weather conditions or locations it may be otherwise difficult to reach. Drones can also be easy to use and quiet, so you won’t have to worry about disrupting wildlife. However, it’s important to follow safety precautions when operating drones. In particular, check out the rules and regulations in your city or state concerning drone usage. That way, you can be in accordance with the law and avoid being hit with any fines or penalties when tracking monarch butterflies
Electronic tags were recently placed on free-flying monarch butterflies for the first time ever in recorded history. Martin Wikelski, an ecologist, worked with Chip Taylor, a monarch butterfly expert, on the project aiming to shed light on monarch migration habits. The electronic tags are extremely lightweight (weighing .007 of an ounce) and were carefully attached to each individual butterfly by hand. Initially, the butterflies had to become accustomed to the slight extra weight before flying off happily. Scientists can now track the butterflies on their migration journey for thousands of miles, study their habits, and discover their favored habitats along the way.
Researchers at the University of Maine have created a new app called the Monarch Model Validation Project that allows people on the East Coast to take photos of monarch butterfly migration sites. Users can also include written details of where exactly they saw the butterflies. By studying photos of roosting butterflies researchers can learn where the butterflies rest overnight on their migration journeys. The app is a unique way concerned citizens can help scientists learn more about this iconic species. HabiTally is another app that has been developed by Iowa State University in collaboration with the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium. This app allows users to anonymously submit data which will report increases in milkweed across the U.S. and also tell us where current habitat exists.
Technology is continually evolving to help us understand monarch butterflies better. Drones, electronic tags, and apps all play an essential role in helping us discover more about and, ultimately, conserve the species.