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Essays : Mad About Monarchs

Originally published in the September-October 1998 issue of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota Alumni Association magazine.

Mad About Monarchs - by Mary Hoff

When she came to Minnesota 15 years ago, ecologist Karen Oberhauser was more interested in research than in becoming best buddies with a bug. But today, with larvae in her lab, chrysalises on her credenza, and a commitment to preserving the future of the monarch butterfly, she's the first to admit that life doesn't always turn out like you think it's going to.

As long as she lives, Karen Oberhauser will remember the crisp February morning in 1995 when she first clambered up the slopes of the Transvolcanic Mountains in Mexico to observe monarch butterflies in their wintering grounds.

Perhaps the best-traveled of any insect, monarchs from all over eastern North America migrate about 2,000 miles each fall to a tiny patch of tree-studded terrain in central Mexico where, in a sort of entomological stupor, more than 100 million of the butterflies gather to await the arrival of spring back home. Oberhauser ('89), an adjunct faculty member in the University of Minnesota's Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences, had followed them south and was heading into the hills to gather data for her research on butterfly reproduction.

Winded by climbing in the thin mountain air, Oberhauser and her fellow hikers trudged up one slope and down the next in search of the migrant monarchs. An occasional butterfly sighting indicated they were on the right track.

Then, after climbing to an elevation of about 10,000 feet, the hikers paused beneath a stand of tall oyamel fir trees. "Do you see them?" asked Mexican monarch researcher Eduardo Rendon-Salinas.

Perplexed, Oberhauser peered around her. Except for a few monarchs flitting about, the surroundings were much like those of fir forests she had encountered in Minnesota.

Then she looked up.

Above her, thick as siding on a shake-shingled house, tens of thousands of butterflies, wings folded against the chill of dawn, clung to the trunks and branches of the lanky trees.

"It was a life-changing experience. I broke into tears," Oberhauser says. "I'd been working on them for so long, and I thought I knew their biology. Then to go see this incredible phenomenon, and to imagine how they'd all come such a long distance and how their survival all depends on this one spot. . . . It changed the way I've thought of monarchs ever since."

Taking wing
Oberhauser's experience in the Mexican forest was a high point on a colorful career path that she traces back to the butterfly-chasing days of her childhood and that has led to her academic work and the creation of a nationwide educational outreach program for schoolchildren and an international effort to preserve the monarch's wintering grounds.

"She's got people into education, she's got people into conservation, she's doing research. In my opinion, she's the brightest of the current generation of monarch biologists," says retired University of Florida butterfly expert Lincoln Brower, who has studied monarchs for nearly 45 years and was in the group that traveled to Mexico. "She's a really good basic researcher with a good sense of the bigger picture."

Although she captured as many caterpillars as any scab-kneed kid growing up in her hometown of Clintonville, Wisconsin, Oberhauser didn't pay much attention to monarchs until she came to the University in the 1980s as an ecology graduate student studying the genetic contribution male insects make to their offspring.

For most of the animal kingdom, the contribution is a set of chromosomes. But in moths and butterflies, the prospective papa transfers not only sperm, but also a goody-bag of protein and water known as a spermatophore. The female digests and uses the body-building materials to strengthen her own reserves and produce healthy eggs.

To learn more about the male's role in moth and butterfly reproduction, Oberhauser needed a research subject. A friend suggested monarchs, noting that they were easy to obtain and mated readily in captivity. So Oberhauser took to the fields, gathering eggs and caterpillars to develop a research population.
She spent months observing matings, dissecting butterflies, and weighing countless minuscule spermatophores. Bit by bit, she gathered clues to the evolutionary significance of the male monarch's reproductive strategy. As she did, her interests gradually shifted from reproduction to the butterflies themselves.

"I was driven by the question, but I changed that," Oberhauser explains. "Now the organism is driving the question. It just kind of evolved. I think you could pick any organism-the more you learn, the more you realize there is to know." Oberhauser later earned an academic appointment and began taking on students of her own.

Ambassadors of science
For nearly 10 years, Oberhauser's relationship with monarchs was strictly scientific. Then in 1992, her lab literally crawling with the results of her research, she sent her daughter Amy to school with caterpillars.

From the time she could walk, Amy had been contributing to her mom's research by accompanying her on caterpillar-collecting forays into fields filled with milkweed, the larvae's exclusive food. Now she and her kindergarten classmates were about to add a new twist to Oberhauser's career by proving that the butterfly is as fine a teacher as it is a research subject. Cute, prolific, and compact, the monarch holds up well against the well-intentioned but not always gentle attention meted out by curious students. It's as entertaining as any electronic "pet," passing through four colorful stages in a time frame even a 6-year-old can appreciate.
Oberhauser suddenly was inundated with requests for caterpillars from teachers around the school. Then teachers elsewhere got wind of the idea. Soon, she was not only studying monarchs, but also introducing them as miniature ambassadors of science to schools all across the United States.

What began as show-and-tell at her daughter's school became a program called Monarchs in the Classroom. Oberhauser collaborated with teachers to create a butterfly-based curriculum that offers a framework for teaching everything from microscope skills and designing experiments to journaling.
She made the curriculum available nationwide by tying it into Journey North, an educational program that lets students use the Internet to track migrating animals. Today, about 2,000 schools around the United States are using monarchs and Oberhauser's curriculum to help draw kids into science.
"They're a wonderful teaching tool," says De Cansler, a Rochester, Minnesota, teacher who's been using monarchs in her seventh-grade science classroom for five years. "They're user friendly, they don't bite, they start from a nonthreatening egg-and the pupa stage is so beautiful."

Despite the monarchs' charisma, Oberhauser is the main reason for the program's success.

"Her role as a mentor and a scientist makes her incredibly powerful as a teacher," says Elizabeth Donnelly, founder and director of Journey North. "Countless times she says to students, 'We just don't know-maybe that's something you can find out.' If more scientists could be true teachers like she is, it would be an incredible contribution to education."

"She understands what teachers need because she's been there," Patrice Morrow, head of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, says about Oberhauser, who is a former high school teacher. She attracts some of our most talented graduate students. She's a superb teacher and she maintains and active research program."

Firs, farmers, and fate
You might think solid research and a nationwide educational program would be plenty for even the most talented multitasker. But after her epiphany among the oyamel firs in 1995, Oberhauser was drawn to yet another role-that of conservationist. Working alongside Brower and other researchers in the Mexican forest, Oberhauser learned that the seemingly boundless supply of monarchs filling the trees around them was, in fact, not so boundless at all.

The problem for the monarchs, and for so many species, is habitat depletion. Local farmers have long depended on logging to support themselves and their families. In 1986, the Mexican government restricted cutting in about 60 square miles of fir forest to protect the butterflies. However, it failed to provide alternative sources of income for the farmers. Consequently, despite their appreciation for the monarch's magic, many continue to cut the trees to support their families.

As habitat shrank before her eyes, Oberhauser realized that these few Mexican farmers could decide the fate of the millions of monarchs that hatch each year in Canada and the United States.

"I saw the potential for this real Achilles's heel of the whole life cycle to blow up if this habitat is lost," she says.

Seeing the problem was one thing. Doing something about it was another. Oberhauser, Brower, and Donnelly all knew people in the United States who were eager to help protect Mexican monarch habitat but had no idea how to do it. They also were aware that the local farmers could not afford to preserve the oyamel forests without another source of income. So they set out to link the U.S. and Mexican groups-in Donnelly's words, "to develop a personal relationship between people here who care about monarchs and people there who are going to determine its future . . . to put our money where our mouths are."

In August 1997, the three formed the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses donations to help preserve the oyamel forest by reducing farmers' need to cut the trees.

"We started out a little naively," Oberhauser says. "Our original plan was to lease the trees so we could just pay [farmers] for not harvesting them. But this was a real Band-Aid resolution. The people are very, very poor. . . . They would have just cut the trees anyway." So the foundation began to help the farmers develop new sources of income.
Today, backed by elementary school bake sales and donations from benefactors, the foundation is providing the farmers with what Brower calls "alternative economies." Six months into the effort, the foundation had raised enough money to buy equipment for one group of farmers. Now it is working to link local craftspeople with U.S. and Canadian markets and tie the farmers into the slow but steady stream of ecotourists that flows through the monarch butterfly's habitat each winter.

Has it made a difference?

"Nobody knows the answer right now," Donnelly says. "We're all just trying to see what we can do."

Flying high
With research, teaching, and conservation work all demanding attention, Oberhauser's life increasingly resembles the crisscrossed pathways of the butterfly-shaped board game she's developing for schoolchildren, a work in progress that teeters atop stacks of scientific manuscripts in her office. The only difference is that there are no "lose a turn" or "go back three spaces" spots for her. All moves push her forward: capture a federal grant, advance five spaces; recruit another teacher for curriculum revision, go to next caterpillar; meet with Mexican farmers to discuss new projects, roll again. . . . And on top of all that, she continues to artfully interweave her professional and family life. Her kitchen counters are no longer crowded with monarch-filled cages, but she has enlisted her daughters-Amy, 11, and Leah, 8-as volunteer research assistants and illustrators for her classroom curriculum. (Her husband, Don Alstad, also an ecologist at the University, is studying the evolution of pest insects.)

Oberhauser says that such diversified work can be an uphill climb for an academic researcher, because the scientific community is notorious for encouraging its members to toe the traditional line-emphasizing the publication of academic research. But even though she knows she'll never win the "publish or perish" contest, she says she has no regrets.
"It definitely takes me out of that running, but that's OK," Oberhauser says. "The stuff I'm writing now is read by thousands of people. The researchers interested in reproduction in butterflies I could probably count on all of my fingers and toes.

"I feel pretty proud of all this," she continues. "We're forging new pathways here."

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