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Monarch Butterfly Migration Update: February 7, 2002

Today's Report Includes:

Welcome to Journey North's Spring Monarch Migration Season!
We begin our season each year while the monarchs are at the over-wintering sites, deep in central Mexico. When their migration begins in March, we hope you'll help us track their journey north.

But not all monarchs migrate to the Mexican sanctuaries! Some monarchs can be found during the winter in northern Mexico, along the coasts of the U.S. Gulf States, and along the California coast. If you see monarchs in your region now, please report them as "Monarchs Over-wintering." We need to gather this information before the migration begins.

Beginning With Bad News:
Massive Storm Hits Monarch Sanctuaries

A massive storm hit the Mexican monarch sanctuaries during the weekend of January 12-13. The level of mortality appears to be quite high, and a large percentage the entire population may have been killed in the wake of this single storm.

Photos by Dave Kust

Scientists and Mexican government officials are now cautiously analyzing mortality data. Great care must be taken because, in the past, hastily-made mortality estimates were later found to have been exaggerated or untrue. A formal statement will be released soon, and we will provide the information as soon as it is made public.

Storm Illustrates Danger of Heavy Deforestation

For monarchs, the weather pattern that occurred in mid-January was the recipe for disaster: Heavy rains were followed by clearing skies and plummeting temperatures. (Monarchs are essentially tropical butterflies and cannot tolerate sub-freezing temperatures for very long. When they are wet, they die at warmer temperatures than they would if dry. As temperatures drop, the rain on the wet butterflies freezes. The ice crystals can pierce and kill the butterflies.) Because of heavy deforestation, scientists fear that the remaining forest may no longer provide the protective microclimate needed to keep the butterflies sufficiently dry and warm.

Monarch's Forest Like a Blanket and Umbrella

Dr. Lincoln Brower has studied the monarchs in their wintering sanctuaries for over 20 years. Whenever he describes the monarchs' winter habitat, he uses this analogy:

"The forest serves as an umbrella and a blanket for the monarchs."

Since you're already familiar with blankets and umbrellas, you can apply your knowledge to a question about monarch habitat. You may be surprised how helpful analogies can be when answering any challenging question.

Challenge Question #1
"How do you think a forest can serve as an umbrella and a blanket for the monarchs? In your answer, explain how deforestation could change both kinds of protection."

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

On Sabbatical in Angangueo:
Dave Kust Documents Effect of Storm

Minnesota teacher Dave Kust witnessed the storm and carefully documented its effect. (See introduction of Dave and his family below.)

"Had Dave not been on the scene and expressed such urgency we simply would not have been able to mobilize so quickly and gather the information needed," said Dr. Lincoln Brower, who just returned from assessing the damage in Mexico. "Incidentally, to give you an idea of the carnage, three of us turned up 9 tagged monarchs in 20 minutes while just looking down on the carpet of dead butterflies in the Chincua sanctuary. There will be hundreds of tags recovered this year," said Brower.

Dave has called in several times since the storm, and sent his field notes and pictures. Here are his observations:

"The weekend of 12 and 13 January was wet. I put out a bucket and on Sunday and measured 10 cm of rain in it. On Sunday afternoon it turned to snow up at higher elevations in the Chincua and Rosario sanctuaries.

"I went up to Chincua on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to check it out. On Monday, not much was moving in the colony, and the guide let me sneak a peek over the fence. Many butterflies were on the ground, about 3 layers thick, and under the mud in places. I think most were just knocked out of the trees and were waiting for the sun because on Tuesday things looked a lot better. Many were still dropping out of the trees from the cold but many more had climbed back up to the tops of shrubs. About 4 or 5 cm of snow were still on the ground.

"It was very cold too, only 24.9 F when I got off the bus at 8 am on Wednesday. There was heavy frost on everything, and all standing water was frozen. It warmed up to 55 in the colony by 2 pm Wednesday. By late afternoon Wednesday the whole understory and ground were covered with butterflies but many were also airborne. There was still a lot of ice and patches of snow around.

"At El Rosario sanctuary there had been 1,000 trees filled with butterflies before the storm. It's so hard to estimate what's left because so much of the colony is now on the ground. They're not moving but I know I can't just assume they're dead. In places the butterflies are piled 10 layers thick--it looks like when you rake leaves---hard to believe they're all butterflies."

What Would You Do?
Thinking on Your Feet

Dave knew he was witnessing a serious storm and the death toll would be high. But how could this be documented scientifically? Questions were racing through his mind:
  • What data would be important to collect?
  • How would he collect it?
  • Butterflies don't have a pulse the way people do, so what could he measure to be sure that butterflies were truly dead?
  • How could he reliably estimate the number of butterflies that had died from the storm, and the number that remained alive?

Dave knew that if the methods chosen were not accepted by other scientists, the conclusions will not be accepted as valid either. As luck would have it, Dr. Lincoln Brower was scheduled to arrive in a few days. We'll show you how the team dealt with the problem when the mortality study is released next week. In the meantime, consider one of the questions that was troubling Dave:

Challenge Question #2:
"How do you know if a butterfly is dead--and not just paralyzed by the cold?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Meet the Kust Family!
After 20 years in the classroom, Minnesota teacher Dave Kust dreamed of taking a sabbatical and traveling south with the monarchs to Mexico for the winter. He wrote a proposal to his school and the administration granted his wishes. He and his family left Minnesota during last fall's migration. They drove all the way to Texas while the butterflies migrated overhead, then boarded a plane for the last leg of the trip, and reached the sanctuaries in time to witness the butterflies' arrival.

Dave teaches 4th grade at Breck School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His wife Kay is on an extended leave from teaching while raising their three children: Katie Kust (age 9), Joseph Kust (age 7) and Ellie Kust (age 5). Even though they didn't speak Spanish when they arrived, the children have been attending the local school where they're immersed in the language all day long. They say this is the hardest thing for them!

What's it like to live in Angangueo? As part of their holiday greeting, Kay and Dave reflected on the experience:

Things We Most Appreciate:

  1. Walking our kids out the front door and being at their school in less than one minute
  2. Walking EVERYWHERE and lots of outdoor living.
  3. Giving the kids a few pesos and sending them down the block for bread
  4. Fresh tortillas, fruit, vegetables bread and bakery every day just a short walk away.
  5. Haircuts for less than two bucks and pineapples for less than one buck.
  6. Seeing and chatting with our Angangueo neighbors and friends every day.
  7. Fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee on the veranda!
  8. The old colonial house where we live. Its courtyard, balconies, big rooms and rocking chairs
  9. Warm sunshine, beautiful countryside and the monarch butterflies!!
  10. Watching the Packer games on our neighbor?s satellite dish that our landlord installed.

Things We?ve Had to Get Used to:

  1. No English spoken here, except by us.
  2. Cold mornings and cold nights, and no heat in the house.
  3. Boiling water to wash dishes.
  4. Hauling our drinking water up the stairs.
  5. No washer or dryer. Hanging lots of wet laundry on the clothes line
  6. No banks or ATMs in town, and converting everything to pesos
  7. No refrigerator, and lighting the stove with a match every time you want to cook.
  8. No TV, no phone, no Internet!
  9. No car, no grocery store, no credit cards, no coffee shop
  10. No putting toilet paper in the toilet bowl. (No septic, sewer or sanitation services.)

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Questions:

IMPORTANT: Answer only ONE question in each e-mail message.

1. Address an e-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #1 (or #2)
3. In the body of EACH message, give your answer to ONE of the questions above.

The Next Monarch Migration Update Will Be Posted on February 14, 2002

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