Tag a butterfly… help science!

Ever wonder where Monarch butterflies go for the winter?

The Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust is looking for New Zealand ‘citizen scientists’ to report sightings, as the Monarchs follow their annual migration.

A degree is not needed; anyone can take part, and everyone, schools included, are welcome to join the Trust’s annual project.  Secretary Jacqui Knight says if we are to conserve species effectively, it is vital we monitor how they are faring.

“The status of our flora and fauna depends on the effects of climate change, pollution, alien species and land management,” she said. “We need to know more about our insects to predict the impacts of such change, and to develop an appropriate response.”

Butterflies are uniquely placed to act as indicators of environmental change.

“By tagging and following Monarchs, we can use them as indicators of the status of our environment here in NZ,” said Dr Mark Hauber, who works in the field of Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour at the University of Auckland’s Biological Sciences.

“Tagging serves a dual purpose,” he says. “Not simply by collecting critical data, but also by introducing people to the method and purpose of scientific investigation.”

The butterflies typically form large clusters, sometimes containing hundreds or thousands of butterflies, on trees in well-sheltered areas during the colder winter months.  Until the Trust started tracking Monarchs there was little research being done as to why butterflies appeared to be retreating from urban areas.

“This is important,” says Jacqui. “We need to find out where the Monarchs overwinter because this late summer generation forms the breeding stock for the next year’s Monarch population.”

It’s not only Monarchs:  Data is needed on other butterflies and moths too, such as the Forest Ringlet and Red Admirals. Entomologists are concerned about NZ’s endemic Lepidoptera.

South Island lepidopterist Brian Patrick talks of a tiny purple copper butterfly which now exists only in one coastal car park.

“It’s teetering on the very edge of survival,” he said.

“The plight of our butterfly fauna is heavily dependent on human respect if they are to survive and thrive. Several butterflies are threatened with extinction even before they are described.”

Overseas countries have learned the hard way – it is not too late for us to undertake research. People are being encouraged to report sightings of all butterflies and day-flying moths on the Trust’s website, and also to help with tagging.

Soon, small white numbered tags will be applied to the wings of migrating Monarchs. It is hoped that the butterflies will be subsequently seen in overwintering places, and people will report the tag number to the website of the Trust.

The Trust is keen to involve gardeners, nature-lovers, trampers, schools, and home-schooled children in these projects. They can tag butterflies, or report sightings – or both.

All the information needed to register and how to play your part is on the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust website:

If you have don’t have the technology, you can write to the Monarch NZ Trust, c/- NZ Post, Russell 0242.

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