Who Gets to Be a Citizen-Scientist?

Democratizing Monarch Studies to Save the Migration

Recovered tag on Cerro Pelon. Photo by Paul Proulx.

Monarch studies offers a case of participatory ecology par excellence. The confirmation of their annual 3,500-mile migration from Canada to their overwintering sites in the mountains of Mexico drew upon the labor of thousands of volunteers. Starting in the 1950s, “citizen-scientists” all over the US and Canada put tiny stickers on the wings of monarchs and mailed information about these tags to researchers at the University of Toronto.

The IMAX film about the success of this massive collective science project, The Flight of the Butterflies, is now available on Netflix in the US and Canada (but not in Mexico). The film includes a shot of a map covered with black threads that connect tagging events to their recoveries. The lines cover southern Ontario and the eastern United States with a thick web that ends at the Rio Grande (kind of like Netflix’s offerings). Citizen science stops at the border, even if the migratory phenomenon does not. But the exclusion of ordinary Mexicans from what has since become a massive collective conservation effort contributes to the dangers the migration faces.

What does citizen science look like? This is a still from The Flight of the Butterflies.

In the years since their discovery, the size of the monarchs’ overwintering population has plummeted by 90%. The mono-cropping of GMO corn and soy doused with glyphosate throughout the Midwestern US has destroyed the milkweed plants monarchs need to reproduce. Meanwhile in Mexico illegal logging in the Monarch Butterfly Reserve thins the forest canopy, leaving the colonies vulnerable in inclement weather. Protecting the monarch’s miraculous migration will require a truly transnational effort coordinated across the three North American nations.

As things currently stand, Monarch Watch’s listserv on all things monarch-related, Dplex, fills my email inbox with news of sightings from March through October, with dozens of postings a day. The listserv falls silent when the monarchs make their way to the mountains of Mexico, as if the monarch community has entered into a state of semi-hibernation as well. Meanwhile, here in Mexico I was translating a talk about the monarchs into Spanish and asked my in-laws about how to translate “citizen-scientist.” Ciudadano-cientifico? I was greeted with looks of incomprehension and told, “Maybe you better just say it in English.”

There was one notable Mexican ciudadana-cientifica, Catalina Aguado Trail, whose crucial role in the discovery of the monarch’s overwintering colonies is represented in The Flight of the Butterflies. A nature enthusiast from Michoacán, she and her gringo husband spent two years and their own money to search the mountains on the Michoacan-State of Mexico border for the mysterious monarchs. On January 2, 1975, they ascended Cerro Pelón with an unnamed local guide and found them — millions of them, covering the ground, filling the air, clustering in the trees.


When Toronto Biologist Fred Urquhart published news of the discovery of the “Monarchs’ Winter Home” in National Geographic, Aguado graced the cover. But she was mentioned once in the article, described as “Cathy, a delightful Mexican girl.” Afterward, Aguado dropped out of the monarch scene so completely that filmmakers had to hire a private detective to find her 35 years later. Whatever the reasons behind this withdrawal, it would seem that monarch citizen science was not so welcoming to Mexicans.

But so much has been lost by the exclusion of ordinary Mexicans from citizen science. It’s led to a failure to enlist local allies in their conservation, and the loss of a great deal of valuable information about their overwintering sites.

For a long time locals were excluded from benefiting from tourism as well, but my husband and I have started to change that by opening a B&B and butterfly tour service in his home town at the entry of Cerro Pelon. Many of our guests began their love of monarchs in childhood. One man remembered how proud he felt tagging them with his elementary school class and mailing the information to Toronto. Another raised caterpillars with her taciturn father, and said that those moments watching the magic of metamorphosis were when she felt closest to him. But these stories suggest a relative privilege: the presence of a postal service and parents with time to spend with children on hobbies.

In contrast, in the communities around the reserve, people live too close to the bone for the luxury of citizen science. As my neighbor the logger once said, “It’s hard to give a fuck about butterflies when you’re hungry.” People don’t have time for things here that don’t produce food or generate income. When I ask my husband Joel if he played or had toys when he was a kid, he says, “No, we worked.” He and his nine siblings herded cattle and sheep, sold fruit and helped their parents around the house and in the fields.

The meadow on Cerro Pelon last season. Photo by Dana Hutchison.

Every year when the butterflies come back to Cerro Pelon, the menfolk here rent their horses to tourists to go up the mountain to see the colony. But when we reach our destination, our neighbors hang out where we park the horses and don’t even bother to ascend to see this natural wonder. Many seem impatient waiting on the blissed out tourists who lose track of time under the orange boughs. This is another job, and the longer we spend up on the mountain, the less money they can make that day.

My husband Joel is different from his peasant neighbors in so many ways. As one of our guests wrote on TripAdvisor, “He’ll want to spend more time at the butterflies than you do.” But maybe he feels such a deep connection to the monarchs because his dad made a living protecting them. The year Joel was born, his dad started working as a forest ranger on Cerro Pelon, a position he would hold for the next 30 years.

Pretty much off the grid: the mountain village of Macheros in the State of Mexico.

The presence of the rangers reduced logging on the mountain. But in all that time, these workers never had any sustained contact with the rest of the monarch community. First there was the language barrier. Then there was the fact that their hometown of Macheros has no phone or mail service. (And until last month, when we paid to have towers built to bring it here, no internet.)

The rangers were employed by the state park system, which didn’t care about data collection. When the Biosphere Reserve took over the area in 1986, they subcontracted data collection to an NGO that produces reports about forest and colony health without spending much time there. Their annual reports on colony size and logging incidence seems more politically motivated than fact based (Logging is not a problem anymore! Colony size is on the rebound!).

Potentially Joel’s dad and his fellow forest rangers knew so much about the colonies, but no one ever wrote anything down (minimally educated, they’re not all that comfortable with writing). My suegro can tell me that there used to be 150 instead of 50 trees covered in monarch clusters, but he cannot tell me when. While everyone eagerly awaited the monarch’s arrival, and kept note of the date, no one kept track of when they left each spring. But as monarch expert Lincoln Brower has pointed out, this information could tell us how the monarchs are responding to global warming.

When the rangers retired in 2014, the agency that employed him took 6 months to get their replacements in place. In the meantime illegal logging in Cerro Pelon’s core protected area exploded. Even after the new rangers started, they didn’t have the same connections their predecessors had developed over the years, and logging continued apace. It was at their urging that we formed an NGO called Butterflies and Their People so that we could look for funding to increase the presence of professional personnel on Cerro Pelon.

Ant logging on Cerro Pelon that took place during a six month period when it had no rangers.

As the proposal I wrote for this project developed, the job description became more professional citizen scientist than ranger. Our rangers could be trained to collect data to answer questions that oddly enough have never been systematically investigated in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, such as How does the size of the colony fluctuate over the course of the season? How successful are all the reforestation efforts that are going on? Is natural regeneration more effective than reforestation? What percentage of the colony dies over the course of the season, and what are the major causes of death (bird strike, starvation)? What are the GPS points of logged trees?

Now that we’ve brought the internet here, Mexico doesn’t have to fall off the map anymore. Dplex doesn’t have to fall silent every winter. We can put Mexican citizen scientists on the grid and in contact with the rest of the monarch research community.

Maybe you’re saying but wait a minute, citizen scientist is a volunteer position. But there’s already a precedent for citizen science as a compensated avocation: in Mexico, Monarch Watch provides a budget to pay people who turn in recovered tags. This decision recognizes an economic reality: if people are not compensated for participatory ecology, they’ll find other things to do. And lucrative illegal logging is usually the other thing that people do.

These tags were purchased from guides at the El Rosario sanctuary in Michoacan.

It is my hope that by democratizing citizen science we can get more locals involved in caring for and caring about the migration, and thus reduce logging. That our project can forge direct connections between locals and researchers and thus bypass the Mexican bureaucracies that don’t really seem to have the monarchs’ interests at heart. In the process, we can make data collection more transparent, flexible and responsive. This transnational conservation effort must become truly transnational if it is to succeed.

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