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Monarch butterflies tagged in Texas for migration research

QUINTANA, Texas (AP) – A burst of color welcomes visitors to Quintana Beach County Park, orange-and-black butterflies dotting the vibrant hues of red, pink and purple that make up the pollinator garden.

The Facts reports the microscopic monarch butterfly eggs aren’t easy to spot among the flowers, but Patty Brinkmeyer has an eye for this sort of thing.

“Once you’ve looked for them so many times, you can pretty much find them,” the park director said, gingerly picking an egg from the leaves of a seedling.

Brinkmeyer is doing her part to conserve an important piece of the Gulf Coast’s ecological puzzle by raising monarch butterflies and tagging them in order to check their migration patterns after she releases them into her pollinator garden.

Once the latest monarch caterpillar hatches and emerges from its chrysalis, Brinkmeyer will attach a weatherproof tag with a unique serial number to its wing before releasing it into her garden.

“You use a special kind of glue that will stick and not harm the butterflies,” Brinkmeyer explained as she demonstrated the process. “It doesn’t impede their flight.”

All the butterflies kept in a special tent in Brinkmeyer’s office are part of a monarch tagging program that tracks the winged creatures’ migration. Monarchs funnel through Texas on their way to Canada and Mexico in both the fall and the spring, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s website.

“From what we’ve found, it takes four generations to get to North America,” Brinkmeyer said. “The fourth generation makes the whole trip, so they live much longer.”

Only 5 percent of monarch eggs make it to the butterfly stage, Brinkmeyer said, which is why she began raising the insects three years ago.

“There’s been a big decline, mainly because of loss of habitat and pesticides. A lot of milkweed grows wild and if they develop the land, that’s gone,” she said. “They don’t have a long lifespan anyway but if you release them as a butterfly instead of letting something eat them while they’re an egg or caterpillar, they have a lot better chance.”

In addition to tracking migration, Brinkmeyer has partnered with Oklahoma State University graduate student David Berman for his three-year study on the role Texas plays in the monarch migration, as well as the effect of certain parasites on the population. He has sample sites all over Texas, including in Abilene, Kerrville and Rockport, he said.

“Texas does play an important role, that’s indisputable,” Berman said. “One thing I’m hoping to clear up is where the conservation efforts should be focused. We do have to prioritize because we have limited resources toward conservation.”

Brinkmeyer takes a few sample scales from each butterfly’s abdomen in order to test them for the OE parasite, which can burrow beneath the monarch’s scales. Berman frequently takes trips to the Gulf Coast to see what her work has uncovered.

“OE isn’t fatal to butterflies but it does decrease their lifespan and make them weaker in general,” Berman said. “They might not actually be able to migrate and keep up the long distance.”

With an already dramatic reduction in monarch population levels, it’s important to study any and all mitigating factors, including habitat loss and pesticides, Berman said. As a native pollinator, the monarchs play an important role in the overall ecosystem, he said.

“A lot of plants native to the United States didn’t evolve with honeybees as their primary pollinator. There are still plants that don’t get pollinated as well by honeybees,” Berman said. “Native pollinators have evolved with these plants, so they do it much better.”

Berman’s reasons for helping conserve monarch butterflies aren’t purely ecological. Watching the butterflies converge in the sky on their way to Canada is a sight to behold, he said.

“It’s pretty dramatic to see,” Berman said. “It’d be a shame to lose a dramatic natural phenomenon like that.”


Information from: The Facts, http://www.thefacts.com

Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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