According to a recent paper from assistant professor of biology Leslie Ries, monarch populations may not be disappearing, countering a long-held assumption in popular culture and the field of entomology.
As an indicator species, the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies point toward general trends in the environment. According to Ries, the resurgence of monarch butterflies may shed light on climate change.
“To understand the consequences of how things are changing is an important piece of information to have as we are trying to act,” Ries said.
Ries arrived at her conclusion after studying large-scale continental patterns of butterflies, using data from citizen scientists and groups of hobbyists who collect data for scientific usage. Ries has helped these programs manage and curate data for more than 10 years.
Ries said conflicting trends in her research caused her to doubt existing conceptions of monarch population decline.
“In the winter you see this big decline, and in the summer you don’t really see it. And so, more than anything, this suggests a new question like, ‘What do we really understand?’ ‘What is causing their decline?’” Ries said.
Ries also emphasized the importance of monarchs on overall North American migration patterns. As monarchs eat poisonous milkweed, the research provides insight on how insects use poison in order to be unpalatable for predators, such as birds.
In addition to her current research interests, Ries said it is important to study other animals to track long-term changes, including figuring out how the environment and climate are changing.
“We are able to take all these data sets that people have been collecting and the observations that people have been making for years and put all that data together in a way that helps us understand how things are changing,” Ries said.
Ries’ research focuses on two main areas: understanding how climate influences the monarchs and their year-to-year migration patterns, and studying temperature tolerances and population dynamics throughout migratory stages.
Ries said she will begin to carry out her studies on campus.
“At Georgetown, I will be starting up some of my own laboratory work, so I will start collecting my data,” Ries said.
Treasurer of EcoAction Zachary Larkin (SFS ’18) said research on monarch butterflies is important in ensuring the well-being of the entire environment.
“As a club focused on raising awareness for and trying to be a part of the solution for environmental issues, we certainly are excited about the positive news expressed by Ries’ research,” Larkin said. “Their presence in an ecosystem is essential for its health. From EcoAction’s perspective, this is another indication that taking care of the entire environment is important to ensure the health of all organisms,” Larkin said.
Anton Lulaj (COL ’18), a biology major, said changes to the butterfly species can have cascading effects on other parts of the ecosystem.
“In terms of the global perspective on climate change, looking at a species that is so pervasive around the world and that adapts so well to environmental change, we are seeing declines in population and changes in migratory patterns, which show that even the most resilient of species are being affected,” Lulaj said.
Ries said that there is still much work to be done regarding the changing patterns in the monarch butterfly populations.
“There are still a lot of questions we don’t know, and that’s true for the monarch as well. It’s a critical time for them and their populations do seem to be declining in an alarming way,” Ries said. “We do need to figure out what’s going on, and hopefully I can be a part of that.”
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