Trading a Textbook for a Net

Every week, I drive to a designated field site that contains an abundance of milkweed and nectar plants. Milkweed is important because monarch caterpillars only eat plants in the milkweed family. Hence, female monarchs lay a single egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf*. Monarch eggs are the size of the head of a pin, yellow-white in color, are similar to the shape of an American football, and display radiating ridges extending from the top to the bottom. After 3-8 days, a tiny caterpillar will use its mandibles to eat its way through the egg and emerge. At first, a monarch caterpillar is a pale yellow-greenish color and is almost translucent. The hungry caterpillar will eat the leaf and molt as it becomes bigger in size. Caterpillars farther along their growth stage exhibit alternating bands of yellow-white-black colors. After 14-18 days, the caterpillar will usually leave its host, the milkweed plant, and travel to a nearby plant to pupate. Once inside the chrysalis, the monarch’s body transforms from a caterpillar to a butterfly.  A monarch can be in its chrysalis stage for one to two weeks. An adult monarch butterfly is distinguishable by its bright orange wings, black veins, and circular white spots along the perimeter of its wings. Lastly, the nectar plants in the field site serve as food sources for the adult monarch butterflies as they migrate or breed.

 For more information about the monarch butterfly’s life cycle, click on the following links:

Monarch Joint Venture:

Monarch Watch:

Here at Dinosaur National Monument, we collaborate with various agencies: the United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Utah Division of Natural Resources, Natural Resources Conservation Services, and Utah State University. As a group, we have partnered with the Southwest Monarch Study , Project Monarch Health, and the Utah Pollinator Pursuit.

  1. Southwest Monarch Study: We capture wild adult monarch butterflies and gently place a waterproof identification sticker on the hindwing. By tagging and releasing the butterflies, we hope to learn more about the key migration paths of monarchs in the American Southwest. This year, we have tagged 284 monarchs! One of our monarchs was tagged at Stewarts Lake State Wild Life Area and found 111 miles south near Moab, Utah.
  1. Project Monarch Health: This citizen science protocol analyzes the pervasiveness of the protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). OE does not necessarily kill the adult monarch butterfly, but it can cause wing deformities that affect the monarch’s flight pattern. We utilize clear tape stickers to sample the adult monarch’s abdomen for OE. This process occurs concurrently with our tagging efforts. At the end of the season, scientists at the University of Georgia will study the samples under a microscope to analyze the infection prevalence.


  1. Utah Pollinator Pursuit: While chasing butterflies, we also count how many eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, and adult monarchs we observed. In addition, we report the condition and plant information of the site.
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