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Monarch Radio Telemetry

Researchers are tracking the movement of monarchs as they look for food

We know monarchs need milkweed to reproduce, but how big should the milkweed patches be and how far apart? A team of Iowa State University researchers is putting tracking devices on the insects to monitor flight patterns and see how the butterflies move to milkweed and flowering plants for nectar.

Dana Schweitzer is with the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium. She says a tiny radio transmitter about the size of a sunflower seed is attached to the abdomen of an adult monarch butterfly.

"When you release the butterfly into habitat, there’s an opportunity to observe how they are moving through the landscape," says Schweitzer. "So, if they’re seeking out nectar resources, if they’re maybe looking for some cover in a tree line, and then also a little bit how they’re navigating over crop fields, other areas where there wouldn’t necessarily be a lot of food or resources for them."

She says they’re hoping to get a better understanding of things like how they navigate following their olfactory signals, and perception distance – how far away can an adult monarch sense the food sources that it’s looking for.

The technicians who do the monitoring have to literally move quickly.

"Just based on the battery life of the tiny little transmitters, an observation for one butterfly might last five minutes, 20 minutes is a pretty good run just because the monarchs are highly mobile," she says. "They’re a species that moves around a lot and moves quite quickly. If they take off, and we’ve got technicians that are following them on foot, then they’re going to be able to move quite a significant distance over a short period of time."

The ISU team is coordinating its studies with researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, who are developing a conservation model for the entire nation.

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