What is Monarch Health?
Monarch 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.
About Monarchs and our Research
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.
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.
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.
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 are 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.