Using citizen science to help monarch butterflies

Do any of the monarch butterflies in your garden have crumpled and deformed wings? Are they unable to fly and just fall to the ground? Do the pupae (chrysalis) have black spots? If so, they may have a parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (or OE) that is only found in monarch butterflies.Professor Phil Lester is researching how common this parasite is amongst monarch butterflies in New Zealand, and he is looking for citizen scientists to help him.

Phil has seen a high number of monarch butterflies in his garden that he suspects have this parasite.

A monarch butterfly with crumpled wings because of ophryocystis elektroscirrha.
A monarch butterfly showing crumpled wings because of ophryocystis elektroscirrha.

“We know that the parasite is present in New Zealand, though we have no idea how prevalent it is,” Phil says. “Butterflies that carry a light infection of the disease may not display any symptoms. They might fly and behave just like an uninfected butterfly. Infected adults unknowingly deposit parasite spores on leaves or even monarch eggs, which are then eaten by the larvae.

“One survey in Australia found between 10 to 66 percent of adult monarch butterflies carry the OE disease. Another survey in Hawaii found an infection rate of 35 percent.”

The only previous survey in New Zealand sampled seven butterflies, of which only one was infected. The more samples Phil can collect, the better information New Zealand will have about how this parasite affects monarch butterflies.

Anyone primary school age or older throughout New Zealand can help Phil investigate how many butterflies in New Zealand have this parasite. Adult butterflies can be sampled without harming them, and all you need to take a sample is a piece of clear tape, Phil says.

Monarch butterfly populations are in decline, especially in North America. A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation showed a decline of more than 80 percent over the past 20 years. In New Zealand populations vary each year, often associated with predation by invasive wasps.

“Monarch butterflies are a native as it is believed that they were blown or flew here, probably before there were any written records of their arrival,” said Jacqui Knight, founding trustee of the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust. “They are a beautiful addition to the New Zealand summer, and they also are wonderful at inspiring people of all ages to get into the outdoors.”

Further information about taking and submitting samples and helping out with Professor Phil Lester’s project can be found here