Every fall, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts what could be described as a moving miracle. In the open, sunny valleys around Cataloochee and Cades Cove, iconic monarch butterflies descend for nectar and take refuge in fields of wildflowers and native grasses.
After their pit stop, the butterflies resume their long journey south to the warmer climes of Florida and Mexico, where eastern monarch populations overwinter. Although adult monarchs weigh less than an ounce and live only a few weeks, they are capable of traveling up to one hundred miles in a single day.
These remarkable butterflies may go unnoticed as they travel along highways and through acres of farmland, but during their time in the Smokies they are greeted by an attentive public. They may even walk away with a keepsake – a tiny mylar tag with a tracking number.
“A lot of people have worked on this project since it started in the 1990s,” says Erin Canter, science literacy and research manager at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (GSMIT), a nonprofit specializing in in outdoor experiential education. “We usually start in mid-September and finish in late October. We’re really trying to catch that curve and figure out when they start coming in and when they’re gone.
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The monarch tagging is part of a long international campaign to help scientists track the intrepid butterflies. Throughout late summer and early fall, small troops of volunteers participating in GSMIT’s Butterfly Education and Monarch Tagging Program congregate at Cades Cove and head to one winding gravel lanes that cut through the secluded valley. Getting out of their vehicles, groups gear up with ready-to-use binoculars, spreadsheets, labels and field guides. Lightweight mesh butterfly nets hang in the breeze like inverted jellyfish.
“Monarchs are the only ones we label, but we also identify and count all the species we find there. The diversity, colors and behaviors are truly amazing,” says Canter. “The goal is not just to tag as many monarchs as possible; rather, it’s about getting people to participate in science and connect with a place – to learn more about these species so that we can understand and protect them.
Nearly 2,000 different species of butterflies, moths, and skippers have been documented in the national park according to the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory – an effort to catalog and identify all Smokies species managed by Discover Life in America (DLiA). So many different species can be found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park thanks to its wide range of protected habitats – from wetlands to forests – and high and low elevations, which helps extend the blooming season for some. key food sources. Places are limited in GSMIT’s butterfly education program at Cades Cove, which is only conducted under special research permit, but DLiA encourages all park visitors to help science in the Smokies by uploading photos of any butterfly or moth they see in the park using the iNaturalist app.
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Although eastern monarchs are not federally listed as threatened or endangered, the Xerces Society and other conservation groups report concerning declines in some wintering populations. Researchers estimate that monarch populations in Mexico have declined by 70% and 95% in California. Since monarchs only lay eggs on native milkweed, they are especially vulnerable to habitat loss from development and untimely shearing. Changing weather patterns resulting from climate change may also interfere with their multigenerational migration.
“Monarchs are not endangered, but what is threatened is their culture of migration from Mexico to Canada,” Canter says. “Monarchs need about three weeks of very cold temperatures to reverse their migration and start heading north again. So if we don’t have those really cold temperatures, we don’t know if they’re going to keep coming back north.
Yet conservationists and indigenous communities in Mexico have made significant progress over the past decade in their efforts to protect key habitats, particularly in the state of Michoacán. And several tags carefully affixed to the wings of butterflies by volunteers in the Smokies have been recovered from the mountains of central Mexico, and for centuries people on both sides of the border have enjoyed the seasonal spectacle of monarch butterflies in flight.
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“There are all these little stories about how we relate to them or notice them – people in Appalachia would call monarchs ‘King Billy,'” Canter explains, a reference to William III of England, also known as name of William of Orange. “The Day of the Dead also coincides with the return of the monarchs, so for the Mazahua people and other indigenous groups in Mexico, it represents the return of the souls of their ancestors. I think monarchs symbolize a lot.
“They themselves have intrinsic value, but I think if we lose them, we will also actually lose something of ourselves.”
Canter will discuss GSMIT’s butterfly education program during the Science at Sugarlands virtual lecture series on Friday, October 21 at 1 p.m. The event is hosted by DLiA and registration for the free online event is open at dlia.org/sas.
Aaron Searcy is a publishing associate with the 29,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit educational partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Learn more at smokiesinformation.org and contact the author at [email protected]