Posted by: csdailyblog | August 11, 2010

How many staff members does it take to tag a butterfly?

Yesterday we found out it takes four: one to hold the butterfly, one to apply the tag, one to fill out the paperwork, and one to take the pictures.

I'm on the left getting a tag ready, Jean is holding a butterfly, Fran is noting down the tag number and gender of the butterfly, and Cathy is taking the photo.

The adhesive tag goes on the discal cell, on the underside of the hindwing of the monarch. The tag does not hurt them or hinder their flight.

Yesterday a whole slew of monarchs eclosed in our rearing chambers. (We collect the monarch caterpillars in our garden and keep them in rearing chambers until they are ready to be released as butterflies.) Our tags had just arrived a few days before, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to practice tagging monarchs and testing for parasites. We thought it was a good idea for us to try the techniques out before tagging and testing with students, who will arrive next week. Stewardship Coordinator Jean Haack, Outdoor Programs Director Cathy Palmer, Graduate Fellowship Program Coordinator Fran McReynolds, and I spent the evening at the picnic tables near the butterfly garden, tagging monarchs and preparing samples to be tested for parasites. You can learn more about tagging and testing monarchs — anyone can participate — at the University of Kansas MonarchWatch site,  the University of Minnesota Monarch Larva Monitoring Project site, and the University of Georgia MonarchHealth site. Monarchs are of interest to researchers because their numbers have been declining over the last two decades, in part because of climate change.

Testing the butterflies for the parasite known as OE, a microscopic organism that kills many monarchs, was particularly tricky. We had to wrap a sticky patch around each butterfly’s abdomen in order to gather the samples. The sticky patches are then applied to a card and sent off to the University of Georgia’s labs along with information on when and where each butterfly was captured or reared. Gloves and frequent sanitizing of hands and surfaces are necessary in order to avoid accidental contamination of the samples or of healthy butterflies.

A transparent adhesive patch is applied around the monarch's abdomen in order to gather samples that might contain parasites. The butterflies do their best to tuck their abdomens out of reach, of course.

A "print" of the butterfly's abdomen that contains scales and, perhaps, miscroscopic parasites, is placed on a card, marked with the butterfly's identifying number, and mailed to the Unviersity of Georigia for analysis.

The last butterfly to be tested, a female, hangs around for a while before deciding to fly off. The testing process does not harm the butterflies at all.

 Earlier in the day, my son William caught a number of great shots of several monarchs eclosing at once.

A butterfly begins to work its way out of its chrysalis. Another chrysalis, behind it, is about ready to eclose, too.

It slides out a little further ...

It's out! At this point its wings are not expanded at all, and its abdomen is distended with fluid that it will now pump into its wings.

It will hang from its chrysalis now for several minutes, expanding its wings.

Its wings are beginning to expand.

Our butterfly is second from the right. After several minutes have passed, his wings are nearly fully expanded, and his nearby sibling has eclosed as well. We can tell he's a boy now because of the indistinct dot on one of the black veins three down from his right side. This dot would be much more obvious from the other side of the wing. All of the butterflies you see in this photo, and more -- ten in all -- eclosed in the space of a half-hour or so. The green chrysalis in the background is less mature and will not eclose for another week or so.

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