Citizen Scientists and Monarch Butterflies

Karen Oberhauser

Karen Oberhauser is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to increasing public engagement in science and science literacy.

When I think of citizen science, I think of points of enlightenment spreading over a map, literally filling it with new knowledge. Each point represents a person who is making an important contribution to science, who is learning a lot, and who is likely to be engaged in conserving the phenomenon they’re studying.

I founded and direct the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP, www.mlmp.org), one of several citizen science projects focused on monarch butterflies. This 16-year-old project engages participants in collecting data that help us document monarch distribution and abundance in North America. The intense efforts of MLMP volunteers exemplify a term coined by Ralph Hames, who described volunteers in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds in Forested Landscapes project as “super citizen scientists.” MLMP volunteers assess monarch density for up to 15 weeks per year (or more in the southern US) using a protocol that can take more than an hour per week. They observe up to several hundred monarch host plants (milkweeds), often collect eggs and caterpillars to rear for a parasite study, and record data on flowering plants at their site. While it’s an honor to know that hundreds of people are donating so much time to this work, it brings with it great responsibility. I am keenly aware of the incredible value of these “donated data”, and the hours contributed by citizen scientists, often in lovely settings, but often too in hot weather, sometimes surrounded by mosquitoes, wood ticks, or poison ivy. My responsibility to MLMP volunteers is to help ensure that the scientific, educational, and conservation potential of their data is realized.

From a scientific perspective, citizen science provides an efficient way to increase the geographic scale of data collection, while at the same time providing fine-scale data, often literally from people’s back yards. Because citizen science projects often involve sampling locations across a wide range of environmental variation, they can answer questions that can’t be addressed by traditional university or public-agency research groups. And their data are being used. In a preliminary analysis of the published literature on monarch butterflies, my colleague Leslie Ries at the University of Maryland found that almost 100% of the papers published since 1990 on monarch population dynamics, 50% of the papers on monarch migration and movement, and 10% of the papers on natural enemies used citizen science data. One of those natural enemies papers was based on questions asked by MLMP volunteer Ilse Gebhard in Michigan, who, along with fellow volunteers (and paper co-authors) Charlie Cameron in North Carolina and Suzanne Oberhauser in Wisconsin, has raised thousands of monarch caterpillars to document parasitism by a particularly interesting parasitoid fly named Lespisia archippivora. That’s the power of citizen science.

We know that citizen science has major educational benefits. Citizen scientists increase their understanding of science concepts, their engagement and interest in research, and their science-related skills. My University of Minnesota Extension colleagues and I are working on a project called Driven to Discover, using citizen science programs focused on birds and monarchs as springboards for youth research. Through Driven to Discover, adult leaders and youth teams from Minnesota, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Ohio are engaged in exciting research, helping us build a model that will lead the field of citizen science in exciting new directions. Driven to Discover participant Josh Proehl built on his work on the MLMP and another monarch citizen science project (Project Monarch Health) to conduct independent research on a monarch disease called Ophryocystis elecktrochirra, or OE for short. This was the summer after he was in 5th grade, and his main tools were a forceps, scotch tape, and a microscope that his teacher Laura Molenaar borrowed from the local High School in New London, Minnesota. The next summer, he attended an international meeting of monarch biologists and citizen scientists, where I introduced him to the world’s expert on OE and director of Project Monarch Health, Dr. Sonia Altizer from the University of Georgia. Sonia and Josh talked as colleagues about the effects and transmission of this disease. The next summer, Josh enlisted his little sister Jenna in his research, and they continued to study OE. That’s the power of citizen science.

I’ve called citizen scientists an “army for conservation” for many reasons; they collect data with conservation applications; they often become stewards for local habitats; and they reach out to others about the importance of conservation. It’s imperative that citizen science doesn’t become just another tool for documenting the demise of the natural world. It can be profoundly depressing to document how bird, butterfly, and native plant populations are declining in the face of human impacts. But, only by understanding these changes and their causes do we have any chance of addressing them. On large scales, we use citizen science data to make decisions about what habitats to protect and how to best restore habitats that support biodiversity. Citizen scientists, whose work has led to strong connections with the natural world, urge our elected leaders to protect land, reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are leading to a changing climate, and address the onslaught of invasive species that are out-competing, consuming, and causing diseases in native species. On smaller, but extremely important scales, citizen scientists work to preserve monarchs and their habitat; MLMP volunteers have changed the location of planned parking lots that would destroy the milkweed patch they’ve been studying, planted host plants for monarchs in their gardens and between their farm fields, and created natural habitat in locations ranging from schoolyards to corporate centers to local parks.

Aldo Leopold once said: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.” Citizen science not only makes these wounds visible to many more people, but it can help to heal them. That is the power of citizen science.

Karen Oberhauser is a Professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota

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