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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

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Posts Tagged ‘monarch butterflies’

How Monarch Butterflies Found (and Lost) Their Migration

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 2, 2014

monarch cluster by Jaap de Roodee

Monarchs at their overwintering site cluster against the cold (Photo: Jaap de Roodee)

As the monarch butterfly migration faces a worsening risk of extinction, a research team has discovered the basis of that legendary migration in a single gene. Genetic analysis also suggests that monarch butterflies originated here in North America, not in the tropics, as previously thought.

Here’s the press release:

The monarch butterfly is one of the most iconic insects in the world, best known for its distinct orange and black wings and a spectacular annual mass migration across North America. However, little has been known about the genes that underlie these famous traits, even as the insect’s storied migration appears to be in peril.

Sequencing the genomes of monarch butterflies from around the world, a team of scientists has now made surprising new insights into the monarch’s genetics. They identified a single gene that appears central to migration — a behavior generally regarded as complex — and another that controls pigmentation. The researchers also shed light on the evolutionary origins of the monarch. They report their findings Oct. 1 in Nature.

“The results of this study shift our whole thinking about

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Abundant in the 1990s, Monarch Butterflies Now at Risk of Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 28, 2014

Monarch butterfly (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

Monarch butterfly (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

With Labor Day just ahead, people on both coasts and across the Great Plains should be celebrating the start of one of North America’s great migrations. The spectacle of monarch butterflies working their way back to their overwintering sites, across hundreds or thousands of miles, is the longest known insect migration on Earth.

It’s such a popular event, and the monarchs are so beautiful—their brilliant orange wings bordered with a black-polka-dot hem—that seven states have named monarch butterflies their state insect.

But this year the parade is mostly canceled, and instead environmental groups have petitioned the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species.

The monarchs have been decimated—populations are down 90 percent from their 20-year average. That’s “a loss so staggering,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, “that in human-population terms it would be like losing every living person in

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

Monarch Butterflies As Canaries in the Cornfield

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 27, 2014

This is a pretty comprehensive account of the monarch butterfly crisis, with lots of links to resource material.  It’s from Lisa Feldkamp of The Nature Conservancy, and it appeared first on TNC’s Cool Green Science blog:

Everyone is talking about the record low count of monarchs at their overwintering site in Mexico, but what does the science say is happening to them and why does it matter?

Monarch butterflies have a special place in the North American imagination. They are beautiful, plentiful, and have a legendary predator-repelling capacity.

They are the state insect or butterfly of seven US states and an important ecotourism resource in Mexico, where millions of monarchs overwinter on oyamel fir trees.

With a range that covers the United States, watching monarchs was once a shared cultural experience, but that is changing fast.

No scientists are arguing that monarchs will go extinct, but numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate.

The most recent overwintering population in Mexico covered about 0.67 hectares of forest – a record low. That’s down approximately 44% from the 2012-2013 overwintering population, which was already very low (Rendon-Salinas 2014).

The record high was in 1996-1997, when the monarchs covered about Read the rest of this entry »

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Maybe the Problem Isn’t Just Monsanto & Roundup

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 5, 2014

I wrote an article earlier this week for Yale Environment 360 about the disappearance of pollinators and other beneficial insects.  It quoted University of Kansas entomologist Chip Taylor’s estimate that monarch butterflies have lost 167 million acres of essential milkweed habitat just since 1996.

No coincidence, that’s when Monsanto introduced Roundup-ready crops.  Their tolerance to herbicides made it possible to significantly increase the spraying of weedkillers.  (The increase since 1996 amounts to 527 million pounds of herbicide in the United States.) The resulting loss of milkweed has been a major factor in the near-disappearance of the Monarch migration.

But a new study suggests that it might not be Monsanto alone that is killing off the monarchs.  The study doesn’t absolve Monsanto.  It just adds Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Farmers Must Grow Insects Like A Crop–Or Starve

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 3, 2014

One of our forgotten pollinators: Megchile fortis from Badlands National Park, South Dakota (Photo: USGS/Sam Droege)

One of our forgotten pollinators: Megchile fortis from Badlands National Park, South Dakota (Photo: USGS/Sam Droege)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

For the last few years, Richard Rant has agreed to let researchers introduce strips of wildflowers among the blueberry plants on his family’s farm in West Olive, Michigan. It’s part of an experiment to see if the wildflowers can encourage pollinating insects and, in a small way, begin to reverse the worldwide decline in beneficial insects. It’s also a pioneering effort in the nascent movement to persuade farmers to grow insects almost as if they were a crop.

That movement is being driven by news that is disturbingly bad even by gloomy environmental standards. Insects pollinate 75 percent of the crops used directly for human food worldwide. They contribute $210 billion in agricultural earnings. But honeybees are now so scarce, according to a new study from the University of Reading, that Europe is 13.6 million colonies short of the number needed to pollinate crops there. Nor can farmers count on natural pollinators as a backup system. A 2011 study sampled four North American bumblebee species and found that they have declined by as much 96 percent over the past century. In China, the loss of wild bees has forced farmers to hand-pollinate apple blossoms using paint brushes.

The broad decline in beneficial insects has also affected species we take for granted as part of our cultural heritage. Just last week, researchers announced that monarch butterfly numbers, already at record lows, once again fell by half in the annual count at overwintering sites in Mexico, with the iconic monarch migration now “at serious risk of disappearing.”

So far, the movement to get farmers to grow beneficial insects amounts, in the United States, to no more than a few hundred thousand acres of pollinator plantings, mostly subsidized by state and federal governments. Through its Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) now partners with the Xerces Society and other conservation groups to get the message out to farmers and help them with the technical issues of how to grow beneficial insects, and how to get paid for doing it. USDA also recently added a pollinator component to the farmland set-asides it pays for through its Conservation Reserve Program. Similar programs are also under way as part of the European Union’s “agri-environment” schemes, Australia’s Landcare program, and the United Nations International Pollinator Initiative.

The experiment on Richard Rant’s blueberry farm — part of a research study by Michigan State University entomologist Rufus Isaacs — is an example of what can happen when such efforts work well. The study results are not expected to be published until later this year. But for Rant at least, planting for pollinators has seemed to work. He noticed that the wildflower patches were humming not just with bees and other pollinators but also with wasps, ladybugs, lacewings, and predacious beetles known to attack the sort of insect pests that damage blueberries. On his own, he started to add Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

The Bad News on Monarch Butterflies Just Got Worse

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 29, 2014


In 2013, the population of monarch butterflies at overwintering sites in Mexico was down by half from 2012.  Today the 2014 count, from this past December, is being released, and the numbers are down by half again.  Check out the chart for the steady erosion of one of North America’s iconic species.  Visit the Monarchwatch blog for the full story, including the loss of an estimated 167 million acres of monarch habitat lost since 1996.

And here’s a press release from the Natural Resources Defense Council:

WASHINGTON (January 29, 2014) –Conservation experts in Mexico today announced that a record low number of monarch butterflies returned this year to their wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico and their annual migration is at “serious risk of disappearing.” Monarchs, which migrate from Mexico across North America and back every year, have been in serious decline since the 1990s. Experts believe that the widespread use of glyphosate weed killer, sold as Round-Up, in connection with genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant corn and soybeans, may be Read the rest of this entry »

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Planting to Save the Last of the Monarch Butterflies

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 24, 2013

Last of the monarch migration?  (Photo: Chip Taylor)

Last of the monarch migration? (Photo: Chip Taylor)

Nice article by Michael Wines in the New York Times about ways to save the monarch butterfly migration.

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Bounding out of a silver Ford pickup into the single-digit wind-flogged flatness that is Iowa in December, Laura Jackson strode to a thicket of desiccated sticks and plucked a paisley-shaped prize.

It was a pod that, after a gentle squeeze, burst with chocolate brown buttons: seeds of milkweed, the favored — indeed, the only — food of the monarch butterfly caterpillar.

Once wild and common, milkweed has diminished as cropland expansion has drastically cut grasslands and conservation lands. Diminished too is the iconic monarch.

Dr. Jackson, a University of Northern Iowa biologist and director of its Tallgrass Prairie Center, is part of a growing effort to rescue the monarch. Her prairie center not only grows milkweed seeds for the state’s natural resources department, which spreads them in parks and other government lands, but has helped seed thousands of acres statewide with milkweed and other native plants in a broader effort to revive the flora and fauna that once blanketed more than four-fifths of the state.

Nationwide, organizations are working to increase the monarchs’ flagging numbers. At the University of Minnesota, a coalition of nonprofits and government agencies called Monarch Joint Venture is funding research and conservation efforts. At the University of Kansas, Monarch Watch has enlisted supporters to create nearly 7,450 so-called way stations, milkweed-rich backyards and other feeding and breeding spots along migration routes on the East and West Coasts and the Midwest.

But it remains Read the rest of this entry »

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Saving the Monarch Migration

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 11, 2013


Here’s my latest blog item at TakePart:

It’s been a dismal year for North America’s favorite migratory species, the monarch butterfly, beginning with the report that populations at overwintering sites in Mexico were down 59 percent from the previous winter. When researchers there measured the total area of trees occupied by monarchs—the stock for most of the continent—it added up to less three acres, an all-time low.

Nothing about the spring migration, which recently ended, gave new cause for hope. Monarch numbers are now so low that any catastrophic event could “send the population spinning downward even more,” says University of Kansas insect ecologist Chip Taylor, whose advocacy group Monarch Watch works to protect and rebuild monarch butterfly populations. The thin population could weaken conservation efforts, he says, “because if you don’t see them, you don’t have the motivation to do something about it.” He expects that the numbers will probably go even lower this coming winter.

The tendency is to blame the problem on Mexico, where logging of critical forests has been a perennial issue. Taylor says Mexico has made “a terrific effort to control illegal logging” and has largely put a stop to “the organized mafia-like groups that go in there with guns and cut down a hectare of forest in one night.” But serious incidents still sometimes occur.

A far larger problem, though, is the increasing intensity and efficiency of agriculture in the United States. Taylor dates the dramatic decline in monarch butterflies to the introduction of Roundup Ready corn and soybeans by the Monsanto Co. in the late 1990s. Until then … to read the rest of this post, click here.

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