A new study finds that monarch wings are getting larger, possibly because climate change has forced the butterflies to travel longer distances as breeding grounds shift farther north.
It’s not too late to save them, but it’s a question of whether we make the effort, scientists say.
6 Minute Read
PUBLISHED December 21, 2018
The epic 3,000-mile monarch butterfly migration may become a thing of the past. Each fall, monarchs travel from their summer homes in the northern U.S. and Canada to winter habitats in California and Mexico. But the 2018 Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count found that the number of west-coast monarchs spending the winter in California had plunged to only 20,456 butterflies—a drop of 86 percent since last year. And the number of eastern monarchs overwintering in Mexico this year has dropped 15 percent since last year, for a total decline of more than 80 percent over the past 20 years, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
“A lot of environmental threats can pile up on top of each other,” says University of Wisconsin entomologist and director of the UW-Arboretum Karen Oberhauser. And the consequences can be hard to predict.
Although monarchs teeter on the edge of an extinction tipping point—in which their numbers drop too low for the species to recover—scientists like Obserhauser say all is not yet lost. Creating new monarch habitat by planting native milkweed species may provide crucial fuel and rest stops for the traveling butterflies, as will taking more action to address climate change.
WHERE’S THE MILKWEED?
A 2004 email from a Midwestern farmer first alerted Kansas University entomologist Chip Taylor to the pending monarch apocalypse. The creation of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans meant that farmers could eradicate weeds and other understory plants, including milkweed, that competed with their crops.
The invisible hand of fear and dread gripped Taylor’s gut. He had spent years studying monarchs and knew they depended on the milkweed studding their migratory corridor across the Midwest. The advent of these new crop varieties meant the death of milkweed.
Data over the next few years only confirmed Taylor’s worst fears: monarch numbers began to plummet. “In a very short period of time, monarchs took a tremendous hit, with tremendous consequences,” Taylor says.
In addition to the loss of milkweed across farms, drought also harms milkweed quality. A 2013 drought in Texas decimated milkweed there, which contributed to low monarch numbers that year.Nectar-rich flowers are important for monarchs’ continued survival. And milkweed, the only plant monarch caterpillars eat, is especially important.The loss of milkweed has clued in an increasingly concerned public that the beautiful butterflies they love might go the way of the passenger pigeon and the woolly mammoth. Awareness of vanishing milkweed bled over into fears of how monarchs would fare as the climate continued to change. A series of papers in the last few years shows that these worries were not misplaced.
Rising carbon dioxide levels from the burning of fossil fuels sit at the heart of climate change, and this increase of carbon can alter how plants like milkweed build certain molecules, explains ecologist Leslie Decker, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University. Milkweed produces toxic steroids called cardenolides. The monarchs have evolved in a way that allows them to tolerate low levels of this poison, storing it in their bodies as a bitter-tasting deterrent to predators.
Models predict an 11 to 57 percent chance that monarch numbers would drop so much in the next 20 years that the species wouldn’t be able to recover.
Cardenolides also help the butterflies by impeding the growth of a monarch parasite with the tongue-twisting name Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. “I had to practice pronouncing this when I was in grad school,” Decker laughs.
The single-celled parasite can infect newly hatched caterpillars by drilling holes in their gut to replicate. If the caterpillars survive, the resulting butterflies have misshapen wings and lowered endurance. Cardenolides help the monarchs tolerate the parasite so that it doesn’t harm them.
But when Decker grew milkweed in a greenhouse with carbon dioxide levels of 760 parts per million (ppm)—what climate scientists project will happen in 150 to 200 years as the current level of 410 ppm continues to rise—she found that the plants produced a different mix of cardenolides, one that was less effective against monarch parasites. She published her findings in July 2018 in Ecology Letters.
“We don’t know how we’re changing the green pharmacy around us,” Decker says.