Gardnerville students probe the Monarch migration
For Norah Gastelum and her second-grade students at Gardnerville Elementary School, October goes by in a flutter of orange-and-black—colors associated with Halloween, of course, but also with monarch butterflies. Each fall, Gastelum and her students raise, tag and release monarch butterflies in cooperation with the Southwest Monarch Study, a volunteer-based effort to investigate monarch migration patterns in the southwestern U.S.
Gastelum’s students begin by raising caterpillars in the classroom, feeding them milkweed—their food of choice—and recording observations as they metamorphose from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Before releasing each adult butterfly into the wild, Gastelum places a small white sticker on one wing—a numbered tag that can later be used to identify the butterfly. After the release, the class sends information about the butterfly—age, location and release-date—to the organizer of the Southwest Monarch Study in Arizona.
Gastelum, who teaches English as a Second Language, says that the experience is great for science learning, and it also gets her students talking. “Language learners need to have real, genuine experiences to develop language,” Gastelum said. “The whole class has this great hands-on experience where they’re making real, relevant observations of a natural phenomenon.”
Where will the butterflies go? Nobody knows, exactly. Although much is known about the migration of monarchs from eastern North America, which make a famous journey each year to the oyamel fir forests of Mexico, much less research has been done in the western U.S., where most monarchs are believed to overwinter along the Pacific coast of California.
Until recent years, Nevada was bit of a blank spot on the migration map. In September 2012, local citizen-scientist Pat Neyman placed a small tag on the wing of a male monarch butterfly in Gardnerville. In December, the same butterfly was spotted approximately 185 miles away, in Santa Cruz, Calififornia—the first Nevada monarch ever tagged and recovered elsewhere.
The next fall, Neyman helped Gastelum and her second-graders get started with monarch tagging. The timing was right: “The beginning of the school year is right before monarchs migrate, so they raise them, tag them and release them.”
In 2013, Gastelum’s class raised and tagged 40 monarchs. In 2014, they tagged and released 40 more. This fall they are planning to tag and release 26. This may sound like a lot of butterflies, but according to a 2015 study, the recovery rate for butterflies tagged by the Southwest Monarch Study in 2012-2013 was only one recovery for every 198 butterflies tagged.
So far, none of the monarchs tagged by Gastelum’s class have been recovered, but, she says, her students are learning a lot. “Second-graders are just natural scientists,” Gastelum said. “They see things that I don’t even notice.” Monarchs across the country are in decline, largely due to the loss of milkweed habitat, says Michelle Hunt, Schoolyard Habitat Coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Reno. For science-minded citizens who wish to get involved, Hunt suggests planting milkweed in gardens, helping with monarch monitoring projects, and participating in local trainings that she does in cooperation with the Washoe State Tree Nursery throughout the year.