Scientific Research in Progress at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch

Mary Kennedy and Mobi Warren showed up right around 10 AM on Saturday for their shifts as volunteers of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) citizen science program.

Milkweed Patch Citizen Science Project

Milkweed Patch Citizen Science Project

With temperatures in the 50s, not much was flying at the Milkweed Patch at the San Antonio River Museum Reach just south of the Pearl Brewery.  But that didn’t deter these novice lepidopterists from perusing dozens of milkweed plants, and noting the profuse life teeming in the understory.

What, exactly, do volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project do?

Simply, they monitor milkweed plants for all stages of the Monarch butterfly lifecycle–eggs, caterpillars in five stages, the lovely jade-green gold-flecked chrysalises, and the butterflies.  The goal:  to better understand how and why Monarch populations change over time and space and to conserve Monarchs and their threatened migration.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One aspect of the project requires inspecting adult butterflies for the unpronounceable Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, protozoan.   Mary Kennedy, a former science teacher who has been involved with MLMP since 1999, demonstrates.

Kennedy carefully lifts a recently hatched Monarch, rubs a sterile Q-tip on its belly and tucks the sample into a zip-lock bag to be sent to a laboratory at the University of Minnesota.  She then takes a special piece of round tape, holds it against the creature’s abdomen, and lifts scales and spores onto the adhesive.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales--photo courtesy of MLMP

The tape is secured onto a sheet of paper and later will be viewed under a microscope for OE spores, which can be deadly to Monarch butterflies. The butterfly is then marked gently with a black marker as well as a cut-in-half Monarch Watch tag (used in the fall to help track their migration) so that it’s not inadvertently monitored again.  Check out the slideshow above to see how it works.

Interested in helping out at the Milkweed Patch?  Volunteers meet on Saturdays at various times, depending on the weather.  Contact Mary Kennedy at mbkenned@sbcglobal.net for more information.

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterflybeat.
Advertisements
Posted in Butterfly Life Cycle, Milkweed, Monarch Butterfly, Monarch caterpillar, Monarch Migration, San Antonio Museum Reach, San Antonio River Walk, Where to see butterflies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch Becomes Official Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project Site

Monarch butterflies, who usually pass through town like so many other fleeting visitors, have taken up permanent residence at a 1200 square-foot milkweed garden known by local butterfly aficionados as “the Milkweed Patch” on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  The year-round colony is a first for San Antonio.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

We’ve written about the Milkweed Patch here many times, but just this month the Patch gained national attention from Monarch researchers when it became one of hundreds of  sites in the nation to be observed weekly by volunteer citizen scientists associated with the University of Minnesota-based Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP).

Monarch butterflies traditionally pass through San Antonio and the “Texas Funnel” each spring and fall to and from their ancestral roosting grounds in the the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico.   Year-round local Monarch butterfly communities are relatively common along the Gulf Coast, in Houston and in Florida, yet they’ve been unheard of in San Antonio–until now.

“Its historic,” says Mary Kennedy of Boerne, who monitors Monarch caterpillars, at Boerne’s Cibolo Nature Center and at Mitchell Lake. “We’ve never had anything

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

like this before,” says the retired science teacher.  Kennedy used Monarch butterflies in her classroom for years at Texas Military Institute.  “This is not a place they would normally be this time of year.”

Kennedy suggests warmer winters and advantageous conditions at the protected, well-kept milkweed garden get credit for attracting the creatures that have captivated observers for millennia.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, calls the San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch “unique” and explains why scientists are especially interested in what goes on here.

“All Monarchs pass through Texas in the fall and again in the spring, and their use of resources in this state in many ways determines the success of the migration. Additionally, many Monarchs stay to breed in Texas in the fall, and understanding what drives this behavior will help us understand how monarchs might respond to climate change and how they are reacting to the presence of non-native milkweed.  The site is particularly interesting because it is basically an island of habitat, and understanding what happens there will help us understand how monarchs use habitat patches of different sizes and with different amounts of isolation from other sites.”

Dr. Oberhauser also points out that the visibility of the Milkweed Patch in our highly trafficked River Walk will engage many more people in “the wonders of monarch biology.”

The first weeks of monitoring have yielded more than 30 chrysalises–17 alive and 15 dead–and some surprising results, says Kennedy.  All butterflies were tested for Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, a nasty protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders.  Some Monarch scientists have speculated that cultivating Monarch butterflies on Tropical milkweed year round can result in undesirable colonies of OE, which seems to flourish on the plant in southern climates late in the year.  In colder climates and the wild, milkweeds die off in the winter, apparently purging OE to a large degree.

Kennedy was pleasantly surprised that not a single one of the Milkweed Patch Monarchs collected this month showed signs of the crippling, often fatal disease.

San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

"A" marks the approximate spot for the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

And San Antonians will be pleasantly surprised by a saunter to the Milkweed Patch.  As the Spring Equinox approaches March 20, Monarchs will start to stream through San Antonio from Mexico, making their journey north and laying the first generation of eggs that will hatch, morph into their various stages, eclose and continue the multi-generation migration.  Go take a look.

Directions:  Park at the Pearl Brewery and cross to the west side of the River.  Follow the trail about five minutes and watch for butterflies.  You can also park on the deadened street at Elmira and Myrtle Streets, and descend the stairs to the River.  Walk south about one minute and you’ll be there.   

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterflybeat.
Posted in Butterfly Life Cycle, Butterflybeat, climate change, Monarch Butterfly, Monarch caterpillar, Monarch Migration, San Antonio Museum Reach, San Antonio River Walk, Where to see butterflies | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Wildflower Bonanza-to-be on the San Antonio Mission Reach, Thanks to Above-average Rains

Bluebonnets, coreoposis, red and blue sage–who knew it was February in San Antonio, Texas?   Recent Texas rains have drenched our drought-parched landscape, but Nature seems bent on making it up to us.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A recent walk on San Antonio’s Mission Reach, the nine-mile linear park that extends from the south part of downtown San Antonio all the easy to Mission Espada, revealed bounties of budding wildflowers, awaiting slightly warmer temperatures and doses of daily sunshine to put out full blooms.  After the 2011 historic drought, it’s heartening.   The butterflies will follow shortly, as will the birds who find their caterpillar life stage a favorite treat.   Not far behind are other returning critters–raccoons, opossums, nutria, even foxes and coyotes eventually.

For a quick preview of what’s coming later this spring, see the slideshow above.   For insights on the complex collaboration of planners, scientists, engineers and specialist contractors tapped to set the stage for these blooms, see my story at The Rivard Report.

Posted in Butterfly gardening, Drought, San Antonio Mission Reach, Where to see butterflies, wildflowers | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Happy Darwin Day! Would Charles Darwin be Pleased or Horrified at Butterflies as Quick Change Artists?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”  Charles Darwin

Tomorrow, on what would have been Charles Darwin’s 203rd birthday, the scientist would have been impressed with butterflies’ capacity to adapt–and simultaneously horrified at their need to do so rapidly.

That’s what we’re taking from a recent study.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin: Adapt or Die -- PHOTO BY FLICKR.COM/SERKEL

European researchers found recently that butterflies and birds are increasingly unable to adapt quickly enough to keep pace with rapid climate change.  The research, published Jan. 9, 2012 in the journal Nature Climate Change, used two decades of data, much of it collected by citizen scientists, and indicated that climate zones in Europe have moved on average 71 miles north for butterflies and 22 miles for birds.

“Both butterflies and birds respond to climate change, but not fast enough to keep up with an increasingly warm climate. We don’t know what the long-term ecological effects of this will be,” said one of the study’s authors, Professor Åke Lindström from Lund University, Sweden, in an article on Balkans.com.

Bordered Patch butterfly:  Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Butterflies have adapted more quickly to the changing temperatures, the study showed. The researchers suspect that this difference can be attributed to the butterflies’ shorter lifespans that make it easier for them to adapt quickly to climate change. Because birds like to return to the same breeding ground year after year, they show more resistance to changing behavior patterns.

Since caterpillars–that is, butterflies-to-be–are one of the primary food sources for many birds, scientists express concern about how this disconnect in their interdependence may play out in the long run.  Lindström explained:   “A worrying aspect of this is if birds fall out of step with butterflies, because caterpillars and insects in general represent an important source of food for many birds.”

For the past 50 years, agriculture, forestry and urbanization have been the main factors affecting bird and butterfly numbers and distribution. “Climate change is now emerging as an increasingly important factor in the development of biodiversity,” said Professor Lindström.

As we wrestle with the warmest winter in recent history, it’s difficult to disagree.   How we and other creatures adapt to these rapid climate changes remains to be seen.

Darwin Day, celebrated on or around February 12, is promoted and celebrated by the International Darwin Foundation.

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterflybeat.
Posted in Butterfly Life Cycle, climate change | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Occupy Michoacan: Monarch Butterflies Move West Because of Deforestation and Climate Change

Monarch butterflies seem to have taken a cue from our Wall Street protesters and moved to more friendly environs for the winter.  The migrating insects, numbering in the millions, have moved slightly west in their roosting sanctuaries, from Mexico state to Michoacan, says a report in El Diario Michoacan.

Monarch butterflies in Michoacan

Monarch butterflies in Michoacan

“It appears the butterfly now prefers the forests of Michoacan to those in Mexcio,” stated a dispatch on the website of the daily publication based in Uruapan, the municipal seat for Michoacan province.

The article quoted Oscar Contreras Contreras of the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Foundation (Funacomm) who said climate change and human activity such as illegal logging have been causing changes in the butterflies arrival and departures dates and population size for the past five years.

El Diario quoted another source who said that in the La Mesa sanctuary, in the town of  San José del Rincón, the butterflies only stayed for two months “because now the conditions for their hibernation and protection no longer exist.”

The butterflies typically occupy 12 sanctuaries that straddle the mountains of the Southern Sierra Madre and Transvolcanic Belt in the Mexican states of Michoacan and Mexico.  Their whereabouts change from year-to-year, and they move within and between the sanctuaries before taking flight in February and March to begin their migration north.

But this year seems different.

Monarch watchers are predicting a dreadful count, as a result of drought and wildfires in Texas, general habitat loss throughout the country and tough conditions in Mexico–environmentally and economically.  The budding ecotourism industry built around the migration has been stopped in its tracks by narco violence, which has caused many tour operators to cease organizing Monarch butterfly watching tours for fears of safety.  It would be no surprise that local Michoacanos might return to illegal logging as a way to feed their families and warm their homes.

We await official reports on this year’s population status, usually made available in February or March.   Like the Occupy Wall Streeters here in the U.S., there’s no question the butterflies will return this spring–but in what numbers?

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterflybeat.
Posted in Butterfly Life Cycle, climate change, Drought, Mexico, Monarch Butterfly, Monarch Migration | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

It’s official: Warmer Winters Cause USDA to Revise Plant Hardiness Zones, San Antonio’s Moves Closer to the Coast

The USDA announced changes in plant hardiness zones this week, moving San Antonio into the same planting zone as Houston and Corpus Christi while Austin, Dallas and Houston zones remain unchanged.   The backsides of seed packets will never be the same.

The new map reflects 30 years of temperature data, from 1976 – 2006, and includes 26 specific zones, each with a five-degree temperature differential.

For example, San Antonio moved from zone 8b, with annual lows of 15 – 20 degrees, to zone 9a, with annual lows of 20-25 degrees.  Of 34 cities listed on the key of the map, 18 have new zoning designations.

New USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Announced

New USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Announced

Here’s the new zones for the four largest Texas cities:

  • Dallas–Zone 8a, 10-15 degrees
  • Houston–Zone 9a, 20 – 25 degrees
  • San Antonio–9a, 20 – 25 degrees (from 8b)
  • Austin–8b, 15-20 degreees

The new maps employ useful new interactive GPS, whereby you can plug in your zip code and find out your zone.  The data also reflects microclimate effects like nearby water sources and elevation.

The redefined heartiness zones tell us what butterflies and blooms have been communicating for the past few years.  As Monarchs and other butterflies reproduce on the San Antonio River well into the winter, it’s apparent that it’s just not as cold as it used to be.

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterflybeat. 
Posted in climate change, Milkweed, Monarch Butterfly, San Antonio Museum Reach, San Antonio River Walk | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Timely Rains, Pent-up Seed Bank, and Little Competition Raise Hopes for a Banner 2012 Wildflower Season

Major rain fell on San Antonio, Austin and in the Hill Country this week, raising levels at streams, aquifers and rivers in Central and South Texas and hopes for a 2012 wildflower bounty this spring.

Austin Bergstrom Airforce base saw a record 5.66 inches.  In San Antono we logged almost three inches–2.94 to be exact.  Out on the Llano River in Kimble County, about an inch-and-a-half doused the landscape.

Will steady rains in Central Texas convert to banner wildflowers in 2012?

Steady rains set stage for a banner wildflower season in 2012

Wildflower and butterfly fans are keeping track.  The historic Texas drought continues, yet steady, periodic rains this winter have the capacity to convert a pent-up seedbank–the soil where seeds drop and await optimal conditions for germination–to a spectacular  wildflower show this spring.

Bluebonnet rosettes are already showing in January

Bluebonnet rosettes are already showing in January

The drought’s kill-off of grass, trees and forbs also make for less competition for hearty native bloomers.   Early risers like bluebonnets, pink evening primrose, and Cowpen Daisy already dress the landscape with rosettes and eager seedlings.

Will 2012 offer a bounty of blooms and butterflies?

Bluebonnet

Bluebonnet: will we see a lot of them this year? Photo: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu

“So far, so good,” said Dr. Mark Simmons, an ecologist and Director of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  “Wildflowers need a pulse of rain every four-six weeks.   We’re on track.”

Dr. Simmons counsels cautious optimism. The caveat: invasive species also lurk and will aggressively compete for available soil, nutrients, sun and water.

Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the Wildflower Center’s Director of Horticulture, also offers encouraging words. “We’re looking to a pretty good spring….alot of germination out there, lots of good well-spaced rains,” she said. “Where cedar elms were growing before, the seed banks underneath have an opportunity.”

Three-plus inches of rain in San Antonio:January showers mean springtime flowers--and butterflies--on the Mission Reach.

A recent 3-inch rain in San Antonio: winter showers mean springtime flowers--and butterflies--on the Mission Reach.

The drought also stunted many wildflowers and inhibited their seed production last year, David Rodriguez, Bexar County Agent of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service points out.   “Wild populations are going to take a while, but seeded populations started in September-October are looking really really nice,” he said.

The National Weather  Climate Prediction Center is predicting “persistent” drought at least through April 30.  Given the inaccuracy of longterm weather forecasting, we’re keeping a hopeful watch.

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterflybeat.
Posted in Butterfly gardening, Butterfly Life Cycle, Butterflybeat, Drought, San Antonio Museum Reach, seeds, Texas Hill Country, wildflowers | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments