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Citizen-Scientists Documenting Monarchs’ Migration with Phones

Alejandra Quezada y Marisa Ávalos

Photo by Alex Guillaume Unsplash

Foto de Correo Real

The MocarcaMX app can be downloaded for free

By Karla Ortiz

A recently launched state mobile-phone application now allows anyone in San Miguel de Allende with a smartphone to easily monitor the famed migration of monarch butterflies through the area. Environmental officials are hoping that this innovation will encourage average people—even those with little or no scientific knowledge—to help the research community better understand the path monarchs travel throughout México.

“It is important to remind the population that the application is not a map to know where to find them, it is to help have a record of their route. If you see them resting, do not disturb them, because the next day they have to return [to where you found them] to undertake a long journey,” said Alejandra Quezada from El Charco del Ingenio, an environmental preservation and education organization that manages the botanical garden of the same name in San Miguel. The organization is publicizing the existence of the app and inviting locals to participate in the registration and monitoring of this annual phenomenon.

Route through México not well documented

Every fall, monarch butterflies travel south more than 4,000 kilometers from Canada and the United States to the states of México and Michoacán in order to escape the cold of northern winters and to hibernate. Their journey is crucial to the pollination of plant species along their path throughout North America.

In the United States and Canada, these insects’ passage is well monitored, and knowledge about which plants the monarchs consume is well-documented. However, the México portion of their journey is still plagued by knowledge gaps about exactly what path the butterflies take and which plants make up their diet en route.

The new app, which can be downloaded for free in the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store, is a technological update to an existing program by the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo Territorial (State Secretary of the Environment and Land Development), which since 2014 has been drafting nonscientists to help monitor the monarchs’ journey using pen-and-paper records. The goal of the program is to both document the insects’ route and to learn where to sow beneficial plants to aid them throughout their migration.

The application allows a user to submit the location of a sighted monarch, with photographic evidence, as well as other data, such as whether the butterfly was flying, feeding, dead, or perched on a tree. It also has a provision for allowing a person out in public who does not wish to use up data limits to record the information and then wait until they are in the presence of Wi-Fi to submit their documentation.

Users can also consult other people’s records on the database to learn more about the monarchs’ life cycle, geographical distribution, and diet. The application also teaches users how to distinguish the monarchs from other butterfly species.

It is believed that the lowlands of México are where two currents of monarch migration from Canada join together, one from the west and the other from the east, although they come from the east in greater numbers. In recent years, scientists have observed fewer monarchs overall on the migration route, a fact that may be due to the destruction and fragmentation of their habitats, meaning the loss of areas where they can reproduce, feed, and hibernate.


Another way to contribute to the conservation of this phenomenon is by building pollinator gardens with regional plants such as black grass, nopal, tepozán, and maguey plants.


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