Monday, 15 July 2019 19:21

What I've Learned Before My Internship

I will be starting my LHIP internship at Dinosaur National Monument in a little less than two weeks. I found out I would be doing this internship back in March so I have had several months to look ahead to this summer. Finally, I am about to begin!

As I’ve explained in my previous blogs, the resource monitoring portion of my summer internship will be focused on monarch butterflies. Just this week, several milkweed plants have bloomed around my house. I don’t think monarchs come to my Montana hometown, which just east of the Rocky Mountains. Nevertheless, I was excited to see these plants and I definitely see them as a positive omen for my upcoming internship. To celebrate monarch butterflies, I’m going to use this blog post to share a few of the most interesting things I have learned so far about monarchs in my preparations for the internship. I credit presenters from the Monarch Conservation Webinar Series(presented by the Monarch Joint Venture and the US Fish & Wildlife Service) for teaching me everything I’ve learned so far.

I’ll start with milkweed plants. Of course, monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed and the caterpillars feed on it before developing into adult butterflies. Eating toxins in the milkweed as a caterpillar eventually makes the adult monarch butterfly toxic. This gives monarchs a defense against predators. If a bird, for example, makes the mistake of eating a monarch, it gets sick from the toxins and then learns to not try eating a monarch again. Interestingly, different species of milkweed have different toxicities, so caterpillars reared on different varieties of milkweed grow up to have different levels of toxicity. Milkweed is the key resource for monarch butterfly reproduction, so an important part of my internship will be monitoring its abundance around Dinosaur National Monument.

Next, monarch butterflies have a large worldwide distribution. Beyond just North and Central America, they can also be found in South America, Australia, Hawaii, and Europe (in Spain and Portugal). Genetic analysis shows that all the populations descended from the original North American. Further, the North American butterflies are the only one to migrate to overwintering sites. This makes sense, since butterflies in tropical regions don’t need to go anywhere to avoid the winter. North American monarchs have large wings to help with their long migrations. They also have other special genetic traits that the non-migrating populations lack. Thus, to conserve the ecological phenomenon of monarch butterfly migrations, the North American population must be maintained. I am excited to see the unique migration when the monarchs begin making their way through Dinosaur sometime around August or September.

Finally, monarch butterflies around the world are infected by a parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE for short since that name is a real mouthful). When an adult monarch is infected by OE, its abdomen becomes covered with parasite spores. The adult sheds the spores to any plants it lands on, including the milkweed it lays eggs on. If caterpillars eat these spores while munching milkweed, they become infected. Bad infections with OE can cause problems during metamorphosis, as the adult butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis with deformed wings. Luckily for North American monarchs, migrating seems to decrease their infection with OE. That’s because when they migrate, they get away from habitats full of parasites. Also, the butterflies carrying lots of OE spores also probably cannot complete the full migration to new habitat because of their deformed wings, so they cannot bring the parasites to the new habitat. When monitoring butterflies during my internship, I expect to be taking samples from adults to test for OE infection.

Published in EFTA intern blog

In my last blog post, I introduced myself and the resource monitoring work I will be doing at Dinosaur National Monument later this summer. I will be lucky to spend time in the field collecting data on Monarch Butterflies, as well as working on projects to educate visitors about the butterflies. I expect that there will be lots of families visiting Dinosaur to see the fossils – young kids are notorious for loving dinosaurs and wanting to be paleontologists! I hope that I can teach these visitors a little something about (living) biodiversity at Dinosaur too.

In my science communication role, I will be working to develop new interpretive programs that educate the public about butterfly research at Dinosaur National Monument. I will also help with existing interpretive programs related to the fossils and other attractions at the monument. Most of my experiences prior to this internship have been focused solely on research, so I am very excited to interact with everyday people visiting Dinosaur to teach them about what I do. I also am interested in science and nature writing, so I look forward to writing about my experiences for the LHIP blog and other media supported by Dinosaur NM or its partners in Monarch conservation/research. 

Along with educating people about research, I will also be promoting citizen science so that people themselves can get involved in monarch research. Citizen science is already a huge part of Monarch Butterfly research. Communities across the country keep an eye out for Monarch Butterflies during migration seasons. When Monarchs arrive at a location, the public enters their observations online. With information coming in from all sorts of people across the country, scientists can create maps that show when and where Monarch populations appear. Meanwhile, when citizens or biologists put small identification tags on individual butterflies and record when they see a tagged individual, we can track the fate of individuals to see their exact migration routes. Monarchs are a famously charismatic and beautiful species, which makes people excited to be citizen scientists of Monarchs.

We think that Western Monarchs migrate to coastal California (as opposed to Mexico for eastern populations), however we need more data from citizen scientists and biologists to have a better understanding of the migration patterns. During my internship, I will be teaching people how to collect data on butterflies. I also may have the chance to be involved in some big citizen programs to get many citizens to Dinosaur to catch adult Monarchs and then apply tags. With the help of citizens, biologists can get so much more data than if they were working alone.

Finally, it is important for the public to engage with butterfly research and conservation so that they can learn the easy things they can do to help conserve Monarchs. People can plant and protect milkweed to provide breeding habitat for butterflies. People also should understand the negative impacts of chemical herbicides or insecticides on butterflies. Monarch migrations in the West have been declining over the years, and it’s vital for individual citizens to do what they can to maintain this amazing species and its incredible migrations. This summer, I hope that by teaching people about Monarchs and getting them involved in citizen science, I will encourage them to become protectors of Monarchs. I start my internship about one month from now and am very excited to begin my work.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Wednesday, 15 May 2019 14:18

Lindsay Martinez

I am from Great Falls, Montana and grew up exploring nearby Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks with my family, inspiring a love of the outdoors and wildlife. I graduated from Princeton University in June 2019 with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and minors in Environmental Studies and African Studies. For my undergraduate thesis at Princeton, I completed field work and lab work in Kenya to study parasitic infection in plains zebras and endangered Grevy’s zebras. I was a member of the Princeton University Conservation Society and traveled with the group to Puerto Rico in May 2019 to study the impacts of climate change on local ecology and communities. My main interest is wildlife conservation. I am looking forward to working with the National Park Service at Dinosaur National Monument, where I will use my field research skills to contribute to monarch butterfly research that can inform decision making concerning listing under the Endangered Species Act. I am also interested in creative communications methods and writing and am excited to work on science communications at Dinosaur.

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