What the monarchs tell us

Monarch butterflies. They’re pretty and perfect for little kids to draw – and maybe add some glitter. Yet these delicate creatures are tough enough to migrate 3,000 miles between the Midwest and Mexico, which makes them strikingly expert navigators, too.

And none of those is the reason that Karen Oberhauser became a butterfly researcher.

They are the reasons why monarchs help her tell the larger story of our environment and spark kids’ interest in science. “They’re a flagship species,” says Oberhauser, who is a professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota and a leading expert in monarch ecology. “They’re a perfect ambassador for other species.”

Thousands of stories

Yes, monarchs are beautiful, but they caught Oberhauser’s eye for a much more pragmatic reason – she was interested in their reproductive biology.

From that initial research, the fascinating qualities of the monarch’s life drew her in. She has since become not only a monarch researcher, but also a passionate educator in the field of conservation biology and “citizen science,” in which members of the public are invited to contribute to the research of professional scientists.

“When I look at the tens of thousands of monarchs in the trees in Mexico, I think about the fact that every one of them has a story,” Oberhauser says. “It grew up on milkweed plant, in most cases, a milkweed plant in the Upper Midwestern U.S., survived incredible odds to avoid predators and parasites to become an adult, and then made a trip of a few thousand miles to get to the overwintering site. I’d love to know those stories!”

Discovering those stories starts with research and teaching at the university, where she also strives to foster students’ interest in science and academic careers. A look at the staff in her lab attests to the number of women drawn to bioscience (conservation biology is two-thirds women), although men still outnumber women in physics and chemistry. That’s changing, she says.

“When scientific fields are more equally male and female, it will show that we’re losing our biases,” she says.

Promoting science literacy

Oberhauser also works with teachers and K-12 students throughout the United States using monarchs to teach about biology, conservation and the process of science. For example, she developed a science education program called “Monarchs in the Classroom,” which includes a curriculum and workshops for teachers.

“I have a strong interest in engaging K-12 students and teachers in inquiry-based science and promoting a citizenry with a high degree of scientific and environmental literacy,” she says.

She also helped develop the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, in which volunteers in the U.S. and Canada collect long-term data on larval monarch populations and milkweed habitat. For that she earned the White House’s “Champion of Change” award in 2013.

Canaries in a coal mine

Oberhauser’s efforts are more relevant than ever because monarchs are harbingers of the environmental change wrought by humans. She says butterflies have been studied for decades, so there’s good data over time for comparison.

Monarchs, Minnesota’s state insect, are in steep decline here and across most of the nation, attributable to global climate change, insecticide use and loss of habitat. Milkweed, the primary plant on which monarchs lay their eggs and on which their larvae feed, has also seen huge declines, largely due to herbicide use.

As temperatures climb, monarchs are moving farther north, yet they’re dependent on milkweed and can only move where that plant grows. “Current climate-change models predict that in 30 years it will be too hot in southern Minnesota,” Oberhauser says, “but the monarchs may be able to go to northern Canada if they can find host plants.” In winter, they need very specific conditions, found primarily in Mexico, where their habitat is fast disappearing.

Oberhauser says she’s sad that the dialogue around climate change has switched from how to slow it down to how we can adapt to it. “Humans can adapt,” she says. “Some species won’t be able to do it.”

And since we live in a hub for monarchs, she hopes Minnesotans will rally to her army of citizen scientists – to collect data, to become stewards for local habitats and to reach out to others to tell the monarchs’ story.

She adds: “Conservation biology is a field of hope.”


– Karen Oberhauser

How you can help the monarchs:

A simple way is to plant a butterfly garden with milkweed and other plants that attract butterflies. www.monarchjointventure.org
For all things monarch, see Oberhauser’s University of Minnesota Monarch Lab: monarchlab.org
Become a citizen scientist by volunteering for a Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project: www.mlmp.org

Minnesota cities get pollinator-friendly

Stillwater recently became the fourth city in Minnesota to pass a resolution aimed at helping to save monarch butterflies, honey bees and other pollinators, joining Lake Elmo, St. Louis Park and Shorewood.

Stillwater efforts will include planting pollinator gardens and forage areas, educational events, and working with garden centers to make more pollinator-friendly plants available.

Marcie Forsberg with the Pollinator Friendly Alliance, which spearheaded Stillwater’s action, says “this is not the whole answer, but we have to begin on a community level, because this is a cause where every person can make a difference.”

Sources: Pollinator Friendly Alliance, Stillwater Gazette