Catching My First Monarch Butterfly

I began working at Dinosaur National Monument last week as the resource monitoring and science communication intern. My objective for this internship is to contribute to monarch butterfly research and to communicate this information with the general public. After spending my first two days getting oriented to Dinosaur, I had the chance to collect some data on my third day.

I traveled to the Josie’s Cabin area in Dinosaur with my two NPS supervisors, two other colleagues, and our butterfly research gear. The area around the historic cabin of Josie Morris has milkweed of a variety of ages, flowering plants, water, and tall trees for roosting. Monarchs are known to spend time in this area because of the good resources present. We estimated that we saw 10-20 monarchs flying about during our few hours there.

Not too long after I’d set down my gear and extended my butterfly net did a monarch come racing down towards me. I thrashed out my net at that beautiful orange butterfly before he could zip over my head (or into my face). Right away, I knew that I had it. I already knew I believed in Beginner’s Luck, but catching my first monarch just minutes after getting into the field on my third day of the internship was still pretty amazing.

Carefully, I slipped my hand into the net and pinched the butterfly’s wings together so that it couldn’t flap more, injure itself, or escape. It took a bit of work to get the sticky ends of its legs out of the net, but soon enough I shakily got the monarch out and began examining it. The whole way, I was nervous to let it go or injure it. Its occasional bursts of movements startled me a bit, as I’ve never been one to pick up and hold a lot of insects. I knew, though, that the monarch was probably pretty tough. If it can fly hundreds of miles to migrate through variable conditions, it can probably handle being caught and held for a few minutes.

We saw that it was a male butterfly because it had black dots on the inside of its wings, which are actually glands for producing pheromones. Then, we noted on our data sheet from the Southwest Monarch Study, that the butterfly seemed to be in excellent condition – no fading of his coloration, no scratches or tears on his wings. Finally, I pressed a tiny round sticker from the Southwest Monarch Study onto the discal cell of his wing, held it there for a few moments to get it nice and stuck, and let him go free. Hopefully, someone somewhere will catch this butterfly again sometime in the future. They’ll see a sticker that says AY400 and Then, that person will report the tag sighting online and we’ll know exactly where my newest friend went after his stop in my net at Dinosaur. It’s a pretty simple process and technology, but it can give us a wealth of information about monarch butterfly migration.

After this quick initial catch, we netted 3 more male monarchs and tagged them over the course of about 80 minutes. We even caught one of them two times. These subsequent catches came when the monarchs had landed on milkweed and were feeding, not when they were flying. It looks like the rest of my internship won’t be quite as easy as getting to the field and having a monarch fly right into my net within minutes. Rather, I’ll have to patiently wait in the swampy patches of milkweed and wait for an unsuspecting monarch to land on a flower where I can net it. I expect that catching monarchs, taking notes, and sharing my data will be a pretty fun way to spend my next few months. It’s exciting that this fun field work can contribute new knowledge to the study of monarch butterflies.

After working in the field, I entered data on the sightings, tag IDs, and milkweed growth into data sheets for both the SW Monarch Study and government researchers. Back at the visitor center, we showed pictures to colleagues and excitedly told them about the monarchs we caught. Many people seemed excited about the monarchs and the work I will be doing in the next few months. I hope to work with other people at Dinosaur in the coming weeks to do more field research, train them on the butterfly research protocols, and begin developing activities that can teach the public about monarchs.

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