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How Make is Helping Scientists Save the Monarch Butterfly

Jul 12, 2022
monarch-butterfly-tracking

Few species are more emblematic of a healthy environment than Danaus plexippus, aka the monarch butterfly.

This nimble, colorful animal has been one of the most successful pollinators for centuries, helping plant and animal life thrive across the North American continent. 

chicago-butterfly-milkweed

Photo taken by Abigail Derby-Lewis

However, urban sprawl and industrialized farming have taken a huge toll on the monarch butterfly population, which has decreased by more than 80% in the last couple of decades.

This phenomenon drew the attention of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, which started to study the butterflies’ migration patterns and food sources to improve their conservation status. 

Soon enough, researchers learned that population rates in the Chicago area are closely related to the existence of milkweed patches (the only food source for monarch butterflies) and came to a realization. 

By keeping track of milkweed patches on a consistent basis, scientists would be able to gather valuable information to ensure the conservation of the species. 

At this point, a logistical problem arose: How to keep track of thousands of milkweed patches distributed across the 9,581 square mile area that is Chicagoland? 

Chasing butterflies 

To oversee milkweed patches in Chicagoland, the Field Museum created a dedicated program for it - the Monarch Community Science.

The program relies on volunteer “citizen scientists” who monitor monarch caterpillars and eggs on their gardens, balconies and public areas, and then report back to the program’s coordinators once a week over the duration of the summer. 

chicago-area-monarch-butterfly-monitoring 

Source: Monarch Community Science

All of this sounds pretty straightforward on paper, but in reality, the success of the program was put at risk by two seemingly innocuous factors: Data entry and communications. 

As it turns out, these aspects consumed most of the program’s time and resources. 

Both coordinators and volunteers spent too much time loading the weekly batch of data, and emails with inquiries flew all over the place.

Perhaps sensing premature failure, the program’s leadership did what scientists usually do: They took a long, hard look at their methods and re-calibrated them for success. 

How so? With the power of tech and automation, of course.

Taking off with Make and ESRI

Prior to automation, participants were asked to fill out one long survey every week, which was then manually loaded into spreadsheets.

In addition, haphazard email communications led to confusion among participants and drove the program’s engagement down, not up.

But then, something happened: After attending the ESRI User Conference, one of the coordinators learned how to create Survey123 integrations with Make, which brought new hope to the program’s long-term viability.  

Automation cleared the bottlenecks by addressing the most excruciating parts of the process. 

Now, after a survey is submitted, the participant receives a summary of the submission over email, which also includes a link to the survey they need for their next submission.

esri-survey-integration-google-sheets

This helped eliminate the confusion surrounding weekly email communications on the spot.

In addition, the information from every submission is automatically added to a Google Sheets spreadsheet. Thanks to this, coordinators can efficiently keep track of the submitted data without spending half their day uploading it manually.

monarch-butterfly-program-results

Results: Data-driven hope for America’s most loved pollinator

By improving the data gathering and communication processes, Monarch Community Science was able to effectively identify, monitor, and track butterfly activity in the Chicagoland area.

Surprisingly enough, the data collected shows that urban areas like Chicago are not only capable of supporting butterfly populations, but also carry the potential of becoming an oasis in between swaths of farmed areas that lack milkweed patches altogether.

monarch-butterfly-program-results

Source: Monarch Community Science

The third takeaway from this program is how “citizen scientists” are instrumental in the conservation efforts of a species. 

Like most initiatives - whether public, private, or non-profit - the Monarch Butterfly Science program gained traction by aligning three pillars:

  • Clear goals

  • Appropriate processes and technologies

  • Participant engagement

Without these, who’d know that a place like Chicago is so relevant in the conservation of a species that positively impacts an entire continent? 

Now that we know, it’s time to double-down our conservation efforts, and to keep bringing ideas to life with Make

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Martin Etchegaray

Senior Content Writer and Editor at Make. I enjoy writing and reading about history, science, and tech.

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