Over Labor Day weekend, I helped out and attended events at “Dark Skies over Dinosaur,” a multi-day stargazing/astronomy/night sky festival celebrating Dinosaur’s recent designation as an International Dark Sky Park. To earn recognition as a Dark Sky Park, Dinosaur has had to prove that it meets rigorous measures for sky darkness, remains open and accessible for citizens to enjoy the dark sky, and takes steps to conserve the darkness. In part, keeping the park dark and limiting light pollution means using light fixtures that face the ground and are the right color/temperature. By meeting all these requirements and going through the designation process, Dinosaur has earned Dark Sky Park classification from the International Dark Sky Association.

Events during the celebratory festival included junior ranger programs on astronomy, viewings of the sun through a solar telescope, documentary viewings of the film “Saving the Dark,” ranger presentations about female astronomers” and several nights of stargazing in Dinosaur. I knew very little about astronomy heading into the week, but after attending a few events I can now tell you a little bit about nebulae, dark-sky friendly lighting, the summer triangle, and a bunch of other night sky related things.

The highlight of the festival was probably the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, when over 200 people attended a stargazing event at the Split Mountain Campground in Dinosaur. (Split Mountain is pictured during the daylight). During the event, I worked at the welcome table, giving out red cellphone to put over flashlights (so people’s right white flashlights wouldn’t disrupt telescopes or people’s night vision) and handing out star maps. Once in the stargazing area, visitors got to learn from park rangers and a variety of volunteers. These volunteers brought years of astronomy experience plus many of their own telescopes to the event. They let visitors look through their scopes to observe nebulas, double stars, planets, galaxies, and more. I thought the generosity of the volunteers was really special to witness. It is awesome that people drove for hours to Dinosaur so they could share their expertise and gear, giving people a tour of the sky and seeking out anything the visitors to see.

It’s incredible just to be in a place as dark as Dinosaur; you can look up and see the whole Milky Way and probably thousands of stars. Further, there’s a lot of peace in being at a stargazing event at Split Mountain. Everyone stays calm and quiet; the most noise you hear is just gurgling from the nearby Green River. It feels like it’s just you out there under a whole universe of stars. It’s especially cool to follow a ranger’s laser pointer to a constellation you never knew about before or even peer through a telescope to see Saturn’s famous rings.

When the visitors left the Saturday night event to head to bed, they remarked on how amazing their experience was and how much they learned. They walked with confidence without flashlights, showing that they adjusted to the darkness and embraced the night. People remarked to me that they learned about the event only earlier that day and drove all the way from Salt Lake City to join in on the stargazing. A couple from China told me that at home, they’d never have the chance to see stars like they did at Dinosaur. People everywhere just seem to love night skies and stars. In a world with a lot of city lights that keep people from seeing the stars, we’re lucky to have dark skies over Dinosaur.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Wednesday, 04 September 2019 20:06

Searching for Signs of Monarch Butterfly Breeding

Along with tagging monarch butterflies to study their migration paths, in my internship I am also conducting field surveys for milkweed, monarch butterfly eggs, and monarch caterpillars. I send my data to both the Southwest Monarch Study and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. USFWS is currently using data to decide whether monarchs need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. My work is important because little is known about monarchs in the Uintah Basin area around Dinosaur National Monument. We need to know where monarch breeding habitat is if we want to protect it and conserve monarchs.

In my early days of the internship, finding monarch eggs was pretty tricky. I had no experience with them and I just knew they would be tiny little things on milkweed leaves. Like most other people I have met, I got pretty overwhelmed when I realized that milkweed plants have all sorts of little things on the bottom of their leaves. Usually, these are little injuries or scars or maybe just dried globs of milk. Luckily enough for me, telling a monarch egg apart from all these little distractions isn’t too tough once you really know what an egg is.

A monarch egg is sort of a yellow to creamy color. It almost always will be underneath a milkweed leaf, though I’ve found a few on the top sides. The egg is also a regular shape, there’s not all these little bubbles and weird geometries to it like there are in dried milk globs. If you look closely, you’ll see that the egg ends in a little point and it has little ridges all along it leading up to that point. Usually, I find just one egg per milkweed plant, but sometimes there will be a few eggs on a single leaf.

After a few days, those monarch eggs hatch into caterpillars (larvae if you want to sound scientific). Upon hatching, a monarch larva takes about 2 weeks to eat lots of milkweed leaves and mature through 5 larval stages, called instars. Larvae molt in between instars and after their fifth stage, they go into a chrysalis for metamorphosis. The first instar, right out of the egg, is only about 1 millimeter long and has very little color. If you find one, you’ll probably see that it’s already made some chew marks in the milkweed and maybe has caused a little milk to start spilling out of the leaf. A first instar larva is pale and doesn’t have any tentacles at its head or rear. By the fifth instar, the larva is up to 45 millimeters long, with big tentacles and bright yellow/black/white coloration. Whereas you have to closely look at the underside of a leaf to find a first or second instar larvae, the third to fifth instars can be spotted from a little farther away. They also are sometimes on the milkweed stems rather than under the leaves.

It is not for the faint of heart to survey a whole patch of milkweed for an hour or two. You’re bending down and standing up, most everything is so tiny that it’s hard to get a camera to focus for a picture, and you’re always stepping carefully to avoid trampling a milkweed plant that might be housing a precious baby monarch. If you’re working in Dinosaur, it might also be 95 degrees under a completely cloudless sky.

Nevertheless, finding each new egg or larva is always cool. I’m reminded of this every time I show a Dinosaur visitor a monarch egg or larva and they get all excited, calling over family members to have a look too. If you find milkweed somewhere, have a look around to see if you can spot any of your own monarch eggs or larvae. If you find any, you’ll have evidence that monarch butterflies are using and breeding in that habitat. If you don’t, you still at least will have opened your eyes to all the biodiversity living in the microhabitat of milkweed plants. You’ll be amazed at all the insects and things you never thought about but see once you start looking closely at plants.

If you need a little help finding and identifying monarch eggs and larvae, have a look at this video or this guide from the University of Minnesota. I highly recommend the video, whose creators have managed to capture high quality images of tiny baby monarchs.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Monday, 02 September 2019 20:25

Seeing Other Pollinators in the Uinta Basin

As much as butterflies need flowers and their nectar for food, flowers also need butterflies and other animals for pollination. I’ve caught monarchs off of flowers and seen their bodies covered with a thin dust that’s ready to be deposited on another flower. It’s cool to observe the mutualism between plants and pollinating animals. It’s also cool when I catch a butterfly and it is so shocked to have been caught that its long skinny tongue (“proboscis” if you want to sound more scientific) for drinking nectar is still stuck out. Here’s a quick rundown of the pollinators that I’m getting up close and personal with during my monarch butterfly research.

First, there’s a whole host of butterfly and moth species in the area beyond just monarchs; swallowtails, cabbage whites, viceroys, and queens (pictured left) are some that I have identified so far. All these types of butterflies fly around from flower to flower drinking up nectar and pollinating the plants. And, of course, all of them seem to fly a lot slower and a lot clumsier than monarchs do, so they’d probably be way easier to catch. Just my luck.

Another butterfly pollinator is the Great Basin Silverspot, which has only been found in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Bog violet is believed to be the one and only larval food plant for the Great Basin Silverspot and thus is an indicator of potential habitat for the species. This plant was found in the Hog Canyon area of Dinosaur this spring where I catch monarchs. I haven’t seen any Great Basin Silverspots yet, but I have caught some of their close relatives (pictured middle) while watching for to see if this species is actually present in the potential habitat. Like monarch butterflies, Great Basin Silverspots are currently under review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. You can read a lot more about Great Basin Silverspot ecology and conservation here. Around the country and the world, people are paying special attention to the conservation of all sorts of pollinators. They’re needed not just for the health of wild vegetation but also for agriculture; many of our favorite foods require pollination that our wild flying friends can provide.

Bees (pictured right) are another abundant pollinator in this area. It seems that bees especially love to feed on the fluffy purple/pink flowers of Rocky Mountain bee plant (who would have thought with a name like that) and Joe Pye weed. Both of these plants can also be pretty attractive to monarchs, and I’ve had the great fortune to catch some angry buzzing bees in my net along with a monarch when both are feeding on the same flower. It can be a little tricky and nerve-wracking to keep the butterfly in the net while getting the bee out without getting it too upset and stinging me. But it’s been 5 weeks without a bee sting incident for me and I’m hoping to keep that streak alive for all of my internship.

Finally, perhaps the coolest pollinators zooming around flowers in my butterfly survey sites are hummingbirds. For such tiny birds, they’re very loud when they fly and it’s a little startling when they whiz by your head. Black-chinned and broad-tailed hummingbirds are probably the ones I’ve seen so far, but they are there and gone so fast I hardly have much of a chance to look and identify them. I’m still pretty amazed every time I see a hummingbird, but I try not to get too distracted by them. It’s fun to see the whole assemblage of pollinators and flowers, but monarch butterflies are the pollinators I’m really after this summer.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Tuesday, 20 August 2019 18:20

Journeying Outside Dinosaur National Monument

Now that I have a few weeks of butterfly field work experience under my belt, I am beginning to spread my wings (butterfly pun sincerely intended) to conduct field work in areas outside of my main field site in Dinosaur National Monument. Since little is known about monarch butterflies in the greater Uintah Basin area of Northeastern Utah, I have traveled around the region to survey for monarchs and milkweed. So far, I’ve gone to a private urban property, a private ranch, a state wildlife management area, and a BLM historic site. In the future, I’ll be surveying other lands outside the Monument as well as more remote parts of Dinosaur. I even will be going on a river rafting trip through Dinosaur in September to look for monarchs within the deep canyons of the Green River.

Utah has several different species of milkweed, and all of the different places I’ve surveyed so far have had showy milkweed. From what I gather, showy milkweed is likely to grow in wetlands, riparian areas, roadsides, and irrigated areas. In Dinosaur, but not the others areas, I’ve also found swamp milkweed (which is found in, you guessed it, swampy areas), and pallid milkweed (in the Monument’s desert ecosystems). You can look at this page from the Xerces Society and scroll down to the regional milkweed guides if you want to learn about what types of milkweed might be present in your area.

Even though they have milkweed, many of the other sites don’t have nearly as many monarchs as I’ve seen at Dinosaur. I figure that’s because milkweed alone isn’t enough to make good monarch habitat. Since milkweed is monarchs’ larval food plant, milkweed has to be present for monarchs to reproduce. But monarchs also need trees to roost in overnight, water, and blooming flowers for nectar. Without nectar, monarchs can’t eat and get the nutrients they need to fuel their reproduction or migration.

My main study site in Dinosaur National Monument is lucky to have all sorts of blooming nectar plants – milkweed plus sunflowers, asters, Joe Pye weed, Rocky Mountain bee plant, thistles, and more – and that’s probably a big reason why it has so many monarchs. (Pictured are blooming sunflowers and Joe Pye weed at my study site in Dinosaur. There’s enough purple and gold around there from the flowers that the scene practically looks like a Lakers game). At Stewart Lake Wildlife Management Area, meanwhile, there were whole fields of blooming sunflowers and Rocky Mountain bee plant and many monarchs flying about and feeding. Elsewhere, there may be huge patches of milkweed in the middle of mowed agricultural fields or alongside highways elsewhere. However, it’s hard to imagine that monarchs visit those patches too much once the milkweed is done blooming and there’s no nectar plants around. I found lots of monarch eggs and larvae on the private ranch in a patch near the lawn where there was blooming plants, but any signs of monarch breeding were hard to find down in the milkweed patches in mowed alfalfa fields.

Going outside Dinosaur has made me really appreciate what the Monument has. I can see 30 monarchs in just a few hours at my main site in Dinosaur, but many places outside the Monument just don’t have that many nectar plants and they might have just a few monarchs coming by. Further, in Dinosaur I’ve recaptured monarchs days and even weeks after I originally caught them. This means that at least some monarchs are hanging out in my study area for a while and not just passing through. In such a nice habitat, some are probably staying to breed, lay eggs, and live out their lives. It’s great that the little swampy area occurs in a national monument and will be protected long-term, conserving this awesome bit of monarch habitat.

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I recently had the chance to join Dinosaur National Monument staff in welcoming the Preserve America Youth Summit program to the Monument. The participants in the Youth Summit were middle and high school students from the Denver area who traveled to Dinosaur for two days to learn about conservation and preservation in the Monument. They also were there to reflect on issues the Monument has faced and ways the visitor experience could be improved.

During their time at Dinosaur, the students went to the visitor centers, picnicked across the river from a group of big horn sheep, saw the fossil quarry, hiked the Harper’s Corner Trail, viewed ancient rock art, learned from park rangers, and a whole lot more. They impressed me with their interest in the park and their knowledge of everything from geology to birds to movies I need to see.

During one activity at the Josie’s Cabin area in Dinosaur, the students learned about Josie’s homestead and how she lived alone in her cabin for around 50 years. The area around the cabin is also prime monarch butterfly habitat, so I had the chance to teach the students a bit about monarchs. I showed them milkweed and monarch eggs and told them to look around for flying or feeding monarchs. I was touched when, at the end of the program, one girl told me seeing the monarch eggs was one of her favorite parts of the trip.

What seemed like highlight of the week for the students was the night sky program at Dinosaur, which was recently declared an International Dark Sky Park. The students were able to enjoy seeing the stars and listening to a program by an interpretive ranger. The next morning, many of the students answered in the affirmative when asked if the previous night’s stargazing was one of their top five life experiences. I was moved by their amazement at the night sky program. I suppose that growing up in a big city like Denver, light pollution meant many of these students never had the chance to see stars like this.

On the final day of their program, the students participated in a town hall. They were all dressed up in ties and dresses and clearly had worked hard to prepare. At the event, students responded to a variety of prompts about conservation and visitor experience at Dinosaur. A panel of professionals - including state and local representatives, BLM biologists, and the superintendent of Dinosaur - carefully listened to the students’ thoughts before asking them further questions and commenting on their ideas. The students talked about how much they enjoyed getting to experience Dinosaur alongside interpretive rangers, who told stories them about many aspects of the Monument. At the same time, many of the students’ ideas for new interpretive activities or strategies to engage with young people centered on technology and social media, as they realized not every visitor has the experience to be with an interpreter throughout their visit. Ultimately, their ideas opened a discussion about the extent to which technology should be incorporated into the visitor experience at national parks.  

At the end of the town hall program, the students closed their trip by being inducted as Junior Rangers of Dinosaur National Monument. At the lead of a Dinosaur interpretive ranger, they proudly raised their right hands and took the oath to protect the Monument. Then, they collected their badges, pinning them to shirts and proudly showing their parents and teachers. I would not be surprised to see some of these students working in parks in the future. The Youth Summit program was an amazing experience for these students and I wish that every kid had the chance to visit a park and learn its story as well as these students did.

Published in EFTA intern blog

On August 10, I helped with the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Hike and Tagging Workshop at Josie’s Cabin in Dinosaur National Monument. This event was intended to teach participants about monarch ecology and conservation, show people how we do monarch research, and gather lots of data.

With the help of a group of 5 netters, 2 park interpreters, and many volunteers, we successfully caught and tagged 26 monarchs over the course of about 3 hours. This included 16 male and 10 females who ranged from poor condition – older individuals with torn wings and faded coloration - to monarchs of excellent condition. One butterfly catcher even netted a pair of mating butterflies (pictured), who stayed together for over an hour and persevered through the netting, placement in our holding hamper, tagging, and release. We also recaptured 3 of the monarchs we had tagged earlier in the day and even recaptured one monarch that we caught in the same area back on July 24. Its wings had become tattered in the 2 weeks since the first time it was captured and we found it interesting that it had stayed in the same area for so long. After the program, I sent all the data to the Southwest Monarch Study, which had provided us with our monarch tags.

We had a nice turnout of visitors at the program, despite the early start time of 8:00 am on a Saturday morning. Interpreters answered questions and guided visitors through fun monarch activities. They also took visitors on a habitat hike to show all the elements of monarch habitat, including tall trees for roosting, milkweed for laying eggs, flowers for feeding on nectar, and water. During the tagging workshop part of the program, visitors helped in a variety of ways. They recorded notes on our data sheets, placed tags on butterflies, identified monarchs’ sex and condition, and searched for monarch eggs and larvae. Young kids and adults alike enjoyed letting the monarchs stand on their arms before flying away after being tagged. Some people even offered to join me in the future to do more tagging. This will be hugely beneficial to me because it is helpful to have multiple sets of hands when we need to catch, handle, and tag the butterflies all while taking notes and photos.

I appreciated that many of the visitors – who ages ranged from babies to grandparents – asked questions about monarchs and wondered what they could do to contribute to the research. People wanted to know where monarchs migrate, how long they live, and more. They also wanted to know where they could go to find out how to become monarch citizen scientists themselves.

We ended the program by taking a group photo with a new plaque from Monarch Watch designating the Josie’s Cabin area as a monarch monitoring waystation. Kids at the program slipped on monarch finger puppets and cape-like wings and held out nets to pose for the cute photo. I hope that for the young visitors, they will remember this experience and how excited they were to be a part of monarch research. I was especially excited about a little girl with no front teeth who spotted a caterpillar on her own and helped identify it as a third instar larvae. When I said she could be a future scientist, she said she actually wants to be a naturalist. Pretty cool, I thought. Overall, this experience reminded me that National Parks and programs like this one can be not only educational but also very inspirational and memorable for visitors.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Thursday, 01 August 2019 21:15

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 tag@swtag.org. 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.

Published in EFTA intern blog

I arrived over the weekend to Dinosaur National Monument in preparation for my work as the Resource Monitoring and Science Communication Intern. In my first week at Dinosaur, I have enjoyed seeing different parts of the monument while being trained for my internship work. I’m amazed by the variability within Dinosaur and all the amazing attractions. Although the monument is named for its dinosaur fossils, there’s so much more to enjoy in the monument. The 211,000 - acre monument stretches through two states - Utah and Colorado and is situated around the Green and Yampa Rivers. At an impressive location in Dinosaur, the Yampa joins the Green as the river makes its way to join up with the Colorado River. Rafting and fishing on the rivers and through the amazing canyons surrounding them is a popular activity at Dinosaur.

The biggest draw at Dinosaur is, of course, the Quarry Exhibit Hall. Embedded on an exposed wall just a few minutes’ drive from the main Quarry Visitor Center are hundreds of dinosaur fossils from some 150 million years ago. Among the fossils on the wall are huge leg bones, long columns of vertebrae, and even a carnivore’s skull attached to a long neck. The dinosaur species include Camarasaurus (a long necked dinosaur) Stegosaurus (the well-known the dinosaur with defensive plates), and Allosaurus (the most dominant predator of the entire Jurassic Period). The quantity of fossils on the bone wall is almost unbelievable, and there’s so many fossils there that the novelty of a fossil almost wears off. There’s so many bones that you forget to be amazed at the fact that each one comes from a gargantuan lizard that was running around 150 million years ago, died, and then was lucky enough to have its bones preserved. Visitors can also walk the fossil discovery trail up to the bone quarry to check out other fossils and rock layers. Walking up this trail and looking at all the rock walls and sediment deposits, one can only wonder: how many more fossils could this place be hiding?

Nevertheless, not everything at Dinosaur is a fossil from an animal that died millions of years ago. In fact, the monument has an impressive diversity of natural ecosystems. Among these are riparian woodlands/wetlands, desert shrubland, and montane forest, semi-desert shrub steppe, and semi-desert woodland. Wildlife species range from sage grouse to mountain lions to prairie dogs. There are four species of endangered fish in the monument.

Dinosaur also has a rich record of human history. Indigenous people created pictographs (paintings) and petroglyphs (carvings) on rocks and canyons throughout what is now the monument. This art comes from the Fremont people and was made a thousand years ago. The ancient images show archers, big horn sheep, lizards, and more. More recent human sites in Dinosaur include several historic ranches and homesteads inhabited by European Americans over the last 150 years. The Josie Basset Morris cabin area – home of a bootlegging and ranching solitary woman in the mid-1900s – also happens to be in a swampy area where I will be monitoring monarch butterflies.

Next up on the list of awesome features of Dinosaur is the region’s complicated geology. Parts of the monument make you feel like you are on the moon. Elsewhere, there are deep red rocks, faults stretching for miles, towering sandstone structures, impressive canyons, tall mountains, and rock layers that go 23 layers deep. Everywhere, the geology impresses and also give us clues into what this area was like in the deep past.

Finally, Dinosaur has plenty of trails and campgrounds for outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Visitors can hike through deserts or canyons and along the rivers in Dinosaur. I hope to spend much of my free time this summer exploring the different trails and sites throughout Dinosaur and learning more about this place.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Monday, 15 July 2019 19:22

In Celebration of Latino Conservation Week

Latino Conservation Week is about promoting conservation efforts in communities and showing support for the protection of our environment. To celebrate Latino Conservation Week in this blog, I’m going to step away from monarch butterflies at Dinosaur National Monument and share some of what I learned from a short research trip to learn about conservation in Puerto Rico. 

In May 2019, I traveled with a group of college classmates from the Princeton Conservation Society to Puerto Rico. Our goal was to learn about community conservation of coral reefs in Culebra, a little island around 20 miles from the east coast of mainland Puerto Rico. By land, Culebra serves as a stopover point for many migrating birds. By sea, Culebra has coral reefs and sea turtles. The Canal Luis Peña Marine Reserve is also off the coast of the island and was created by the local community to protect fish stocks. 

I had the chance to go snorkeling for several days around Culebra to have a look at the coral reefs. I saw big purple sea fans, even bigger orange brain corals, green sea turtles, sea rays, and a whole bunch of colorful fish and other corals that I can’t tell you the names of. I was amazed at all the biodiversity. However, while snorkeling, it also was apparent that the reefs had been heavily degraded. The other students and I remarked time and again throughout our trip about “mountains” of bleached, dead coral. The corals’ skeletal white structures piled up in what felt a bit like underwater graveyards. I can hardly imagine how amazing and colorful the reefs must have looked before so many corals died.

Community conservation groups on Culebra have stepped up to combat further destruction of local coral reefs. These include the Sociedad Ambiente Marino(SAM) and CORALations.. In part, SAM works on reef restoration after damaging events like heavy storms. The restoration work includes farming domestic corals and then transplanting them into wild reefs. CORALations, meanwhile, has youth programs to train “reef guardians” who remind fishermen of the Marine Reserve boundaries and rules. Reef guardians also teach snorkelers how to experience the reefs without damaging them. CORALations also advocates for policies that both promote clean water around Culebra and limit development projects on the island. When parts of the hilly island are cleared for a new building project, sediment can run off from the hills and into the water. This pollutes the corals’ habitat and blocks the corals from getting enough light

Representatives from both conservation groups mentioned several of their motivations for protecting coral reefs. One motivation is tourism; healthy coral reefs attract thousands of tourists to Culebra each year and the tourism business is crucial for the local economy. Despite this, the conservationists emphasized that they do not conserve just for tourists; they also protect the reefs for their own well-being. The local people depend on healthy marine ecosystems to provide fish for their sustenance. Further, the community wants to live in an environment with clean water.

Of course, coral reefs may be doomed by forces outside the control of local communities. These include climate change effects, like ocean acidification, warming waters, and rising sea levels. There’s also the problem of ocean pollution coming from faraway waters. Perhaps, there’s not too much local people can do to prevent these threats. Further, even if everything is perfectly protected at the local level, the outside forces could still destroy corals around Culebra. Nevertheless, as a representative from CORALations put it, doing community conservation in the reefs is simply the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do for the intrinsically valuable and unique coral reef ecosystems and it’s the right thing to for the communities. During Latino Conservation Week, I will be reflecting on what the right thing to do is for biodiversity and for Latino communities when it comes to conservation.

 

Published in EFTA intern blog
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
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