Citizen Science

Help from all over

Norah Urquhart posted ads in newspapers calling for volunteers from all over Canada and the United States to help tag butterflies, in an effort to track the butterfly routes in the hope of discovering the Monarch overwintering sites. The volunteers were called Citizen Scientists and the group became known as The Insect Migration Association.

They accomplished this colossal task in an age before computers, Google or iPads – without any of the modern conveniences that would have made the research so much easier, and quicker!

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This is an ad Norah Urquhart placed in newspapers, recreated for Flight of the Butterflies in 3D.

In September 1975 in Minnesota, two junior-high-school students turned Citizen Scientists, Jim Street and Dean Boen attached tag number ps 397 to a butterfly with the help of their teacher, Jim Gilbert. Little did they know that tag would soon make history.

Ken Brugger was simply a man on a quest to find a beautiful Mexican student he met on vacation in 1974. He was driving on the road through the Transvolcanic mountain belt, halfway between Morelia and Mexico City and it was raining so hard he had to pull off the road. He realized it wasn’t just rain hitting the windshield. He stepped out of his motor home and couldn’t believe his eyes. Thousands and thousands of Monarch butterflies were falling all around him, blanketing the road and the vehicle.

A remarkable twist of fate

Ken had seen one of those ads Norah Urquhart placed and kept the Urquhart’s address. He wrote to them of what he had seen. This was a real break for the Urquharts. It was the news they had been hoping to hear for years.

Within months, Ken found his mystery girl. Her name was Catalina Aguado and she was native to the Michoacan region. They married and took up the cause to find the butterflies.

As a young girl, Catalina remembered watching small groups of monarch butterflies for hours by the riverside when they flew down to get a drink. She was enchanted by them. So in that sense, her fascination with the monarch butterfly began at an early age, just like Fred Urquhart. Always fascinated by flora and fauna, Catalina kept detailed notes during her and Ken’s search for the colonies. Ken relied on her for this knowledge, especially considering that he was not a naturalist until this search began and was colour blind, so could not easily identify insect differences by colour. Catalina also knew the local region and the people and since Ken could not speak Spanish, she was instrumental in finding clues from the locals.

After almost two years of searching, on January 2, 1975 in Cerro Pelon, Ken and Catalina were overjoyed to finally uncover the roosting site of millions of butterflies. It was a serendipitous chance indeed that the girl Ken fell in love with was from Morelia, loved butterflies and spoke the local dialect. Catalina was the key to the region, allowing them to search in places an outsider might not have been able to access.

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Pictured: Catalina Aguado with actress, Stephanie Sigman, who plays her in the movie

Ken was an inventor, a textile engineer, a businessman who was from Texas but working in Mexico when they met. He also loved cars and could take apart and put back together almost any machine. Catalina recalled that when she kept falling off the back of the motorcycle, trying to get up the roadless, steep mountainsides, Ken refitted the bike and added a tumble bar. He also cut and designed their clothes and retrofit old clothes for locals with amazing creativity. For example, the outfit that Catalina wore on the famous 1976 National Geographic cover was designed and made by Ken. Catalina is the last surviving member of the discovery team and lives in Austin, Texas with her second husband and son and her career is as a social worker.

And in 1976, Ken, Catalina, Fred and Norah Urquhart all made the trip together to witness this truly awesome spectacle. What’s even more astonishing is the fact that Dr. Urquhart stumbled upon the butterfly among the millions that carried one of his tags – number ps 397.

The Insect Migration Association started by the Urquharts is now Monarch Watch, a 20,000 member organization tagging over 200,000 butterflies per year. A 100-year-old woman living in Michigan who first started tagging with the Insect Migration Association still keeps active in the Monarch tagging community.

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Taggers played a critical role in the migration discovery and in scientifically proving that the Canadian butterflies are indeed the ones that migrate south thousands of miles. Two Minnesota schoolboys attached the tag that Fred Urquhart found at the discovery site.

Many Monarch butterfly groups are dedicated to protecting the butterflies through research, lobbying and conservation activities. The Federal and appropriate State governments of Mexico also work diligently to protect the sanctuaries.

What you can do

Take part in one of the many citizen projects that will provide data to help us to understand how Monarch populations are doing, and how we can help them.

Become a Citizen Scientist and tag butterflies >

Plant milkweed in gardens that lie along the migratory route >

In addition to producing Flight of the Butterflies in 3D, SK Films provides theatres showing the film a supply of milkweed seeds for moviegoers to raise awareness of the threat to milkweed plants and is donating a significant portion of the film’s proceeds to the conservation of Monarch sanctuaries, specifically to Mexico’s Fondo Mexicano para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza.

Famous Citizen Scientists

Joan Senghas

The world’s oldest Monarch tagger is Joan Senghas of Michigan. She just celebrated her 100th birthday! When she first started tagging, no adhesives worked so the method was to punch a hole in the large vein in the front wing to ensure the two sides of the tag would stick together. However, these tags fell off when wet.

She’s still monitoring Monarchs, and recently said: “Just a quick note to wind up the 2011 Monarch Report. On Sept. 16, cool and windy, a good number migrated along the lake St. Clair shoreline. This was a short burst for one day only. Also, inland I saw a few singles and pairs in the preceding days. Hope things were better other places.”

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Newspaper article about Joan’s dedication to tagging.

Jim Gilbert

A teacher from Minnesota, Jim Gilbert, along with his students Dean Boen and Jim Street, were responsible for tagging the butterfly that was found by Fred Urquhart, and proved his theory about one of the most important migrations in the world. Tag 397, which they affixed to the butterfly wing on an August day in 1975, was the one that proved that butterflies that left Toronto were the same ones roosting in the mountains of Mexico! Upon finding the tag, Urquhart exclaimed, “There, to my amazement, was one bearing a white tag! By incredible chance I had stumbled on a butterfly tagged by one Jim Gilbert, far away in Chaska, Minnesota.” He announced this discovery in the 1976 issue of National Geographic.

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The historic 1975 photo of Jim Gilbert and his students tagging the Minnesota monarch Dr. Urquhart found in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Journey North.

Don Davis

A dedicated citizen scientist and an amazing tagger since 1968, Don Davis has tagged tens of thousands of butterflies and has had 137 of his butterflies recovered! He is so good that he holds a Guinness record! Directly from the Guinness World Record Site:
“A tagged male monarch (Danaus plexippus), released by Donald A. Davis (Canada) at Presqu’ile Provincial Park near Brighton, Ontario, Canada on 10 September 1988 was recaptured on 8 April 1989 in Austin, Texas, USA. It is assumed that this butterfly spent the winter in Mexico as it would not have been able to survive freezing winter temperatures in Texas. Hence, this butterfly travelled at least 4,635 km (2,880 miles) – a distance obtained by measuring a line from the release site to the overwintering sites and back north again to Austin, Texas, USA. However, the actual distance travelled could be double this figure.”

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Don visiting the Monarchs in Mexico

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