The Monarch Butterfly May Be Endangered

April 20, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

A butterfly in its habitat at the Texas Discovery Gardens at Fair Park. (PHOTO BY GLORIA SALINAS / SMU DAILY MUSTANG)

A butterfly in its habitat at the Texas Discovery Gardens at Fair Park. (PHOTO BY GLORIA SALINAS / SMU DAILY MUSTANG)

By Gloria Salinas
gosalinas@smu.edu

Nestled in the heart of Dallas, Texas Discovery Gardens at Fair Park is host to tropical plants, flowers and trees from around the globe. This flora makes up the home and serves as food for hundreds of butterflies. Streaks of blue, green, red and yellow pass in a flutter through the trees and ponds but there is one type of butterfly missing; perhaps the most popular of all of the butterflies for its gracefulness and beauty— the Monarch.

Monarch butterflies arrive in North Texas during the second or third week of March. However, the number of returning monarchs has dwindled over the few past years because many are dying in Mexican forests from lack of heat. Deforestation mixed with climate changes have impacted the monarch’s migration and habitat. Today the monarch butterfly is the smallest and most delicate creature on the World Wildlife Fund’s endangered species list.

“The world’s most spectacular insect migration happens in our backyards and we as humans should try to protect it because it teaches us how the world works,” said Dr. Orley R. Taylor, an ecologist, and director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas,

Dr. Taylor conducts the world’s largest tagging project on monarchs to track their fall migration. The tags, which are nine millimeters in diameter, are placed on the large mitten shaped cell on the underside of the hind wing of the monarch and have no effect on their flying abilities or travel. Dr. Taylor’s Web site, Monarch Watch, has a database of sequential seasons for tag recoveries and provides the location where the monarch over-wintered in Mexico.

The monarch butterfly completes an incredible fall migration annually from parts of northern Canada and the United States to the Oyamel fir forests of the Sierra Madre in Mexico. The monarch travels to the tropical forests of Mexico since its existence and the ancient ancestors of today’s Mexican population welcome them with rituals.

The migration of the monarch is considered one of nature’s most amazing phenomena. Nearing the end of February, millions of monarchs in their overwintering locations in Mexico will begin to make their journey back to the north as temperatures begin to warm up.

It is a quiet day at the front desk of the Butterfly House at the Texas Discovery Gardens at Fair Park where Susan Arnold greets guests and many school children on a typical day. Arnold is well versed on the Butterfly House, and continues to be fascinated by the creatures.

“Butterflies are creatures of beauty and the school children learn a lot about the world from these delicate creatures,” Arnold said.

There are currently no monarchs in the Butterfly House because they are over-wintering in Mexico. However, Arnold said they do stop by the Texas Discovery Gardens backyard on their trip north because they maintain flowers and plants that the monarchs like.

According to their Web site, the Texas Discovery Gardens mission is to have a constructive impact on the future of Texas by teaching people helpful ways to “restore, conserve and preserve nature in the urban environment through the use of native and adapted plants that illustrate the interrelationship of Butterflies, Bugs and Botany.”

“I can’t imagine a Texas spring without the monarch butterflies beautiful presence, to go out in the gardens and not see them fluttering around would be so unusual,” Arnold said.

Angie Case, a pre-kindergarten teacher at First Presbyterian Dallas, recently visited the Texas Discovery Gardens with her class of four and five year olds. The pre-kindergarten curriculum at the time of the field trip was “My Family, My Community,” which focused on animal families and communities.

“We continue to visit the Gardens each year because it is a field trip that encompasses a variety of lessons: we learn about sequence-of-events through the story of the life cycle of the butterfly,” Case said.

In his studies of monarchs, Dr. Taylor is most interested in monarch conservation. “We’re losing a lot of habitat, nearly two million acres a year due to habitat and climate change,” Dr. Taylor said.

The loss of the monarch butterfly, like many endangered species, would have no obvious impact on the ecosystem but the circle of life is the obvious indicator that if the monarch were lost it would change other insect interactions.

“We do know that on their trip back north female monarchs lay up to 300 to 400 larvae apiece and many are eaten by other organisms so if that food source is pulled from an environment things will surely be affected and change for many other creatures,” Dr. Taylor said.

Dr. Taylor’s life work to save the monarch and its habitat is gaining the interest of the three governments of Canada, the United States and Mexico. The countries are creating national committees that are committed to saving the monarch and its habitat by reviewing deforestation policies, but there is still much work to be done before the monarch is safe.

“Imagine sipping your glass of sweet tea on the front porch in the spring and there are no orange wings of the monarch fluttering by. I can’t imagine my childhood without the monarch,” Arnold said.

Case, who spoke through an e-mail interview, said the Butterfly Gardens is one of the most popular field trips because of the beauty and playful interaction the children encounter in the garden while learning a variety of lessons.

“At this age, children learn through play, and the Butterfly Garden does an excellent job of incorporating play into their educational activities,” Case said.