Conservation students tag monarch butterflies to help save the endangered species

Many monarch butterflies covering tree branchings in a forest in Michoacan, Mexico.
Monarch butterflies in Michoacan, Mexico. Photo by Getty Images.

Many creatures migrate to warmer habitats for the winter, but no insect does so quite as uniquely and spectacularly as the monarch butterfly.

From the United States and Canada, tens of millions of monarchs fly each year to a place they—and the previous butterfly generation before them—have never been before: tall trees found in a few mountain forests in central Mexico. Their tiny wings can take them on a roughly 2,500-mile transcontinental journey to these beautiful butterfly sanctuaries.

Protecting an Endangered Species

In late September, 18 undergraduates from the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation‘s (SMSC) Wildlife Ecology and Conservation program tagged monarch butterflies on their journey south to help researchers better understand their grand migration.

“It’s important to track [their movement] because monarchs are listed as an endangered species as of this summer [by the International Union for Conservation of Nature],” said senior environmental and sustainability studies major Nadia Gray.

Gray, who said she previously volunteered with the Norfolk Botanical Garden as a butterfly docent, is attending her second semester at SMSC. The Virginia Beach native said monarchs are facing threats including habitat loss, air pollution, and climate change.

“[Tagging] allows us to hopefully track some of them along the way south, but also to see what proportion of the tagged butterflies end up in central Mexico,” said Assistant Professor of Conservation Science Joshua Davis.

According to the nonprofit citizen-science program Monarch Watch, tagging also helps answer questions about the origins of monarchs that reach Mexico, the timing and pace of their migration, factors that impact their survival rates, and more.

An SMSC student wearing a George Mason University T-Shirt holds a monarch butterfly while Professor Joshua Davis reaches his hand out to explain how to tag the butterfly on its hind wing.
SMSC student Spencer Harman (left) holds a monarch butterfly for tagging with guidance from Professor Joshua Davis. Photo by Mariam Aburdeineh.

Elusive Flyers

Using aerial nets with a delicate fabric to protect the butterflies, the students spent two afternoons in the fields at SMSC’s Front Royal campus to capture the fluttering insects.

On the second afternoon, the students caught three monarchs and placed sticker-like tags with serial codes on the butterflies’ hind wings.

An SMSC student is seen between tall blades of grass in a field. She is holding an aerial net with both hands as she searches for monarch butterflies.
SMSC student Nadia Gray using an aerial net to catch butterflies in the field. Photo by Cristian Torres. 
“It is no small feat to catch these butterflies,” said Davis, who purchased the tags from Monarch Watch and has participated in the program with SMSC students since 2018. “If they’re going to survive this many thousands, many hundreds of miles journey south, they have to be pretty robust fliers.”

Even with many people, catching monarchs can be difficult. On the group’s first afternoon in the field, they were slightly ahead of most monarchs’ migration. The very few monarchs they did see were too swift to catch.

Still, the group learned more about butterflies and caught, identified, and released nine other butterfly species, including whites and sulfurs, and the common buckeye.

A close up of Professor Davis holding a monarch butterfly with a tag on its hindwing. With the other hand he is recording information on the butterfly on a clipboard.
Information being recorded on one of the tagged monarch butterflies. Photo by Mariam Aburdeineh.

On the second day in the field, the butterflies were also difficult to catch because of the wind, but students like senior environmental science major Spencer Harman were determined to succeed. That kind of determination is central to the Mason experience, which challenges us to show up ready to work that much harder in our quest to solve problems through critical actions and research. 

More likely than not, [the monarchs] were actually in the trees,” said Harman, who caught one that dropped out of a tree in front of him.

The Place for Aspiring Conservationists

Being in the field for experiential learning is one of the highlights of Harman’s SMSC experience, he said.

I’ve been interested in SMSC since high school and now that I’m here, it’s really interesting how specific we can get into the field of conservation,” said Harman, who grew up in Gainesville, Virginia.

“You get to have lots of hands-on experiences and then you get to meet with conservation professionals—it’s a really whole experience for anyone who wants to be, or is interested in, being a conservationist.”

Gray agreed.

“It’s just a good place to come if you need to get your foot in the door in the world of conservation, or if you want to make those connections with people that are working for, say, the Smithsonian or Virginia Working Landscapes.”

It’s a rewarding experience for professors, too.

“The thing I enjoy most about being here at SMSC is just the unique opportunities we have from an educational perspective,” Davis said.

“The student engagement is really fantastic,” he added. “It’s a self-selected group, and they’re really, really interested in this sort of thing. It makes teaching a lot of fun.”