Risk of extinction for monarch butterflies

  • Environment
  • Monday, 05 May 2014

Do monarchs butterflies' woes signal broader problems?

On a high mountain slope in central Mexico, a patch of fir trees looks dusted in orange and black. In fact, millions of monarch butterflies cloak the trees. The forest murmurs with the whir of their flapping wings.

Every year, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies – each so light that 50 together weigh barely an ounce – find their way on what may be the world’s longest insect migration, travelling the length of North America to pass the winter in central Mexico.

Yet the great monarch migration is in peril, a victim of rampant herbicide use in faraway corn and soybean fields, extreme weather, a tiny microbial pathogen and deforestation. Monarch butterfly populations are plummeting. The dense colonies of butterflies on central Mexican peaks were far smaller this year than ever before.

Scientists say Mexico’s monarch butterfly colonies – as many as several million butterflies in one acre (0.4ha) – are on the cusp of disappearing.

“We see these things as so delicate. But if they migrate a distance of some 2,000 miles (3,200km), from Canada all the way down to Mexico, they are pretty tough,” said Craig Wilson, a scientist at Texas A&M University.

Loss of food and habitat

Scientists who are studying the monarchs’ decline cite many possible reasons, but they’re focusing now on one major one: the decline in the United States of milkweed, a lowly broad-leafed plant that’s widely treated as a weed to be eradicated, doused with herbicides in farmlands and along highway shoulders.

Milkweed is most common in the prairies of the Canadian and US Midwest but its 70 varieties also grow along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Monarchs can’t survive without milkweed. Female monarchs lay eggs on milkweed. When they hatch, the larvae grow into caterpillars that feed on the milkweed’s leaves. Those leaves contain a poison that inoculates the monarchs from their predators. The caterpillars then form chrysalises and emerge as butterflies.

Over the past decade, US fields containing milkweed have declined sharply. Orley “Chip” Taylor, a monarch expert at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, calls the loss “massive.” “We’ve lost something like 24 million acres (9.6 milion ha) because of conversion of land to cropland. That’s an area the size of Indiana,” he said.

The advent of genetically modified corn and soybean varieties that can withstand herbicides has added to that loss. Now farmers employ glyphosate herbicides, such as Monsanto’s Roundup, that kill weeds with a vengeance. It’s had a huge impact on milkweed, which before could grow among crops or at the edges of fields.

“The crops survive but any weeds, including milkweed, don’t,” Wilson said.

Faced with vast reductions in milkweed, the size of the colonies of monarchs escaping northern winters has shrunk radically in central Mexico. Nearly two decades ago, in the winter of 1996-1997, dense monarch colonies covered 18ha of oyamel fir forest. In the 2013-2014 winter, the colonies covered only 0.56ha, a plunge of nearly 44% from the previous year. The trend seems inexorable, experts said.

Most monarchs live only a little more than a month. But one generation each year lives seven or eight months, long enough to migrate to central Mexico before winter sets in, where the butterflies settle into a semi-dormant state, often clustering around the same fir trees as their forebears, perhaps drawn by chemical cues.

In the spring, the monarchs return to the north, where they lay eggs on milkweed and die, giving way to a new generation.

Other factors may be hurting the monarch population, including extreme conditions associated with climate change. A debilitating protozoan parasite, known in scientific shorthand as OE, also has exploded since 2002 and now affects 10% to 15% of monarchs, said Sonia Altizer, an ecologist at the University of Georgia who’s studied monarchs for two decades.

Fewer tourists

While the dwindling monarch colonies worry scientists, who fear they may also be a warning of other environmental crises, in this region of Mexico the decline threatens people’s livelihood. Butterfly tourism has grown since scientists first came across the dense winter colonies in 1975.

At the El Rosario gateway to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in eastern Michoacan state, decals of monarchs adorn taxis. Lodges cater to butterfly lovers. To the lament of locals, tourism has dropped, hit by organised crime in other parts of the state as well as the shrinking butterfly colonies.

“It’s not what we expected,” said Fernando Guzman Cruz, a member of the communal agricultural community that protects the reserve.

Only 55,000 visitors came this season, he said, a “50% drop” from a year earlier. He blamed the decline on US agricultural practices hurting the monarch population.

“We want you to stop killing the milkweed,” he told a US visitor.

Blame game

For years, Mexico received much of the blame for dwindling monarch populations. Scientists pointed to rampant illegal logging of the high-altitude oyamel firs the monarch favour. The government took action.

“A year and a half ago, we saw that large-scale logging had been reduced to practically zero,” said Omar Vidal, president of WWF-Mexico.

Now blame has shifted north to the shoulders of US and Canadian farmers and their widespread use of herbicides that kill milkweed.

In the past two centuries, monarchs have spread around the globe to the Pacific Islands, Australia and even parts of Western Europe. So they may never vanish from the world. But they might stop their seasonal movement, going the way of Great Plains bison.

Humanity would lose an awe-inspiring annual event if the monarch no longer moves to dense colonies in Mexico, said Taylor, the Kansas expert.

“It’s just jaw-dropping,” he said. “The sensation of hearing and seeing tens of thousands of cascading butterflies at once is not like any other experience on Earth.”

Taylor has been instrumental in the Monarch Waystation programme, which encourages people to recolonise areas as small as their yards with milkweed to serve as stopping points for migrating butterflies.

More than 7,500 “Waystations“ now exist, including 400 in Texas alone, and boosters urge federal and state governments to let milkweed grow undisturbed along highways rather than mow it down.

Despite decades of scientific study, mystery still surrounds the monarch, including how it migrates to the same fir patch colonised by earlier generations.

Some experts worry about a variation of “the butterfly effect,” the concept coined by Edward Norton Lorenz, an American meteorologist and pioneer of chaos theory, who suggested that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could trigger a hurricane on the other side of the globe weeks later.

That theory of interdependence now seems turned on its head. The question today is: What occurs when the monarch stops flapping its wings?

“If monarchs are in trouble — and they are a really robust species — you can practically be assured that there are a number of species like pollinators and birds that also are in trouble because they rely on the same habitats as monarchs,” Altizer said. – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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