“Reality Checking” the Wonder

Cerro Pelon’s most recent colony formation, January 6 2019.


Sorry about the silence — the holidays were busy here at the entry of the Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. And up above us, the butterflies stayed busy too, continuing to fly every day as temps continued to range from 3–16°C up on the mountain. I didn’t have time to post images of the ongoing beauteousness, but compatriots who did started getting some predictable responses to their videos of intense flight activity. A response best summarized by one word: WORRY.

Here’s a sample from a recent thread: “I am loving the photos and videos. Wonderful to see what appears to be high numbers. But VERY concerned about them using up their fat stores too quickly being so active.” Subsequent comments echoed this anxiety: “The view can be beautiful but reality is LIPID DEPLETION.” Another participant invoked the late monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower to say, “Lincoln would be voicing his concern.” Yet another responded, “he most certainly would. The reality check beyond the beauty and wonder.”

The response from folks here on the ground to this fretting can also be summed up in one word: IRRITATION.

JM Butterfly B&B Guide Ana Moreno remarked, “I don’t know what they’re so worried about. I talked to my dad about it, and he said it’s always been like this.” Her father Melquiades was a CEPANAF forest ranger in the Cerro Pelon Sanctuary for thirty-five years. When he retired back in 2014, his son Pato took over his job. Ranger Pato is also a board member and consultant for Butterflies and Their People, a non-profit that has more than doubled the number of forest guardians up on Cerro Pelon and reduced illegal logging by more than 80% over the past year.

People who are in contact with the butterflies every day: Arborist Oswaldo, Ranger Pato and Arborist Francisco on Cerro Pelon.

Pato asserted, “This is normal — Ask anybody here. Ask the people who are in contact with the butterflies every day. It was always like this before. The problem is people are getting their information about what butterfly behavior is like from people who just come once a year.”

“There are so many factors to take into consideration here,” Pato continued. “What size trees are the butterflies roosting on? How densely are they clustered? How many flowers are in bloom? Do they have access to water? Are their roosts exposed to the elements or protected by the side of a canyon?”

These are all valid questions — questions that as far as we know have never been systematically studied by the one organization that’s allowed to monitor monarch behavior in Mexico.

That’s right. One organization. I still have a hard time getting my head around it. A monopoly seems so contrary to basic principles of science as a collective effort based on transparent methods and replicable results. We have neither here. So if we’re going to talk “reality check,” can you please reality check that? Start by asking, what do we know about the monarchs in Mexico and why we know it? And just as importantly — what don’t we know and why we don’t know it?

For starters, if you’re going to worry about the temperature, why not find out what temperatures actually are in the butterfly sanctuaries? Eminent monarch researchers and citizen scientists pore over weather predictions for the town of Angangueo in an effort to guess what conditions might be like in the sanctuaries. But Angangueo is not in the sanctuaries. Why not install a thermometer close to the actual colonies? If that’s not possible, then why isn’t it possible?

Dead monarchs on Cerro Pelon. The cause of death for these two is unclear; their bodies were intact.

And if you’re sure that increased flight activity leads to increased mortality — ask for studies of monarch mortality. Dead butterflies cover the forest floor by the end of every season. Looking at their bodies, you can guess if they were eaten by grosbeaks, orioles or mice, frozen or starved to death. As far as we know, researchers have only systematically surveyed mortality after catastrophic weather events, like the storms of 2002 and 2016. But how can you interpret storm mortality when you don’t have a baseline mortality rate? When I asked if the Butterflies and Their People arborists could help conduct such a study, I was told that the sole group that’s allowed to do studies was already studying it. If they are, perhaps they could be encouraged to share this data publicly.

If my sources are right and the frequency of flight activity on Cerro Pelon hasn’t changed all that much over the past few decades, other things have. For the first time in the history of Mexico’s monarch sanctuaries, some of the people who live by the butterflies are literate, tech savvy, and have access cellphones and the internet. Now they can share what they’re seeing with the wider world. And have it met with alarm.

But hang wringing is not enough. And if we’re going to invoke what Lincoln Brower would say, we should also talk about what he would do. Lincoln never left it at “voicing concern” when it came to the monarch migration— he took action. Not everyone agreed with his actions — the petition to US Fish & Wildlife to get the monarch listed as an endangered species has been controversial. But the campaign raised awareness and unleashed a flood of conservation projects in an effort to avoid the listing.

One of the last documents Lincoln collaborated on before his death urged the reform of Mexico’s “scientific monopoly” and advocated for the involvement of local people in knowledge production. It’s a huge loss that he’s not around to keep pressing for this change. But you, dear reader, are. We need your help, not just your concern, in order to better understand what really needs to be done to protect this fragile phenomenon we all love.

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