The following is a brief update on the status of the eastern monarch population.
The leading edge of the migration has now reached northern Texas. As many of you know, we attempt to follow the monarch population closely. Based on our experience, and ongoing data analysis of monarch numbers, we offer opinions/projections on what to expect in the near future based on our understanding of how the monarch populations have been affected by patterns of temperature and rainfall in the preceding months.
Late in the spring I started predicting a small migration this fall. In the Premigration Newsletter sent out with the Monarch Watch Tagging Kits, I predicted that overwintering population in Mexico would be similar in size to that of the low populations recorded in 2004 (2.19 hectares) and 2009 (1.92 hectares). It was clear that the monarch numbers in New England and recorded at Cape May would be low this fall, and that the numbers originating in the central region would be slightly better than those of the eastern Dakotas through Wisconsin but still low relative to long term numbers. The New England/Cape May projection appears to be correct as the numbers are down in this region. I was wrong about the central region (Ontario, MI, OH, IN, IL) – fewer monarchs appear to have been produced in this area than I expected. Wisconsin numbers also appear to be down.
The surprise is the eastern Dakotas and western MN. This area seems to be the source of a large number of the monarchs moving through the lower midwest at this time. Nevertheless, the overall numbers are down. But, it gets worse. The migration is just beginning to navigate a 1000 miles of hell – a nearly flowerless/nectarless and waterless expanse of central KS, OK, TX, and NE MX (see Drought Monitor).
It is too late for rains to change the situation in TX and northern MX. Monarchs will make it to the overwintering sites but their numbers will be significantly reduced by these conditions. My expectation is that that the overwintering numbers will be the lowest ever (previous low 1.92 hectares) and that the arriving butterflies will be in relatively poor shape with low fat reserves. If the average condition (mass) of the overwintering monarchs is lower than average, mortality during the winter could also be high. Other scenarios could include low returning numbers next spring with a reduced reproductive capacity due to low fat reserves. Keep your fingers crossed that there are no winter storms in MX that could make matters worse.
It will be interesting to see how monarchs cope with the lack of nectar and water as they move through TX. Monarchs, like most insects, have hygroreceptors (sense organs that are sensitive to humidity gradients); therefore, when conditions are extremely dry, we might expect monarchs to seek out the darkest and most humid habitats. If this plays out, most monarchs will accumulate in drainages, along rivers, move in an out of forests, and concentrate around other water sources.
As I pointed out in the Premigration Newsletter (and the August Population Status blog article), there is a new reality, or expectation, regarding the size of the overwintering population in MX. It now appears that winter populations will be in the range of 2-6 hectares (down from the long term average of 7.24) with 6 hectares being reached only during the most favorable conditions. In the near term, the average overwintering population will be close to 3 hectares. As we pointed out recently (Brower et al. 2011), the decline is related to the loss of habitat, particularly the rapid adoption of herbicide tolerant (HT) crops. The majority of these crops are planted within the summer (June-August) breeding area for the monarch population. In spite of weed control methods prior to 1996, when HT crops were first introduced, milkweed persisted in these croplands at a low level where they provided an excellent resource for monarchs. With the planting of HT engineered corn and soy followed by the use of glyphosate to control weeds, milkweed has been almost completely eliminated from these crops. At present, the total area of HT crops is larger than that of any state except TX and AK, or about 4 times the state of IL). The decline in the monarch population first became noticeable in 2004 when the percentage of HT corn and soy acreage exceeded 50% of all acreage for these crops.
Low monarch numbers in MX this winter and in the future means that the integrity of the overwintering sites is now more important than ever and that planting milkweeds in gardens and incorporating these plants in restoration projects either as seeds or plugs should receive the highest priority.
Monarch Waystations – Create, Conserve, & Protect Monarch Habitats
Bring Back The Monarchs – It’s not too late…Filed under Monarch Population Status | 11 Comments »