Sandy Creek Central School District
Sandy Creek students participate in butterfly tagging to track Monarch migration
Why do Monarch butterflies migrate from Upstate New York to a small geographic region in mountainous Central Mexico? How do they find their way there and how doe their offspring find their way back to the Sandy Creek area? These are some of the many questions that scientists have been asking and students at Sandy Creek Elementary School are helping to answer.
Future lepidopterists were hard at work in Patti Kings fifth grade science class where they have collected Monarch butterflies, caterpillars and chrysalises and have successfully tagged the adults of the species and released them to begin their migration. Working with Monarch Watch, a large-scale citizen science project launched in 1992 to help understand the dynamics of the butterflies fall migration, the students will tag, record and track their butterflies as they migrate to Mexico. Once the butterflies have completed their migration, they will lay eggs and then die. Local citizens from the surrounding towns and villages in Central Mexico will collect the butterfly bodies and note the tagged identifications for Monarch Watch. Students in Sandy Creek can log into the data base and see if their butterfly was successful in making the long journey.
The tags are tiny dots of paper with identifying numbers that are logged by the original tagger and then updated when they reach their destination through the database using the number on the specific tag.
The students in the class have researched a great deal on the Monarch butterfly species and have learned about the fragility of their habitat and the incredible nature of the butterfly to make the journey thousands of miles south for the winter. They have been able to study the caterpillar phase and have learned that they shed their skin five times as they grow, before the final shed that reveals the chrysalis inside. They also learned that the caterpillars they have collected now are a second-generation caterpillar and the adult butterflies from the second generation will live approximately 8-9 months, unlike the first generation butterflies who laid their eggs in Central New York to hatch the second generation. The life cycle of the first-generation butterfly is only 2-3 months and their only purpose is to hatch the second gen caterpillar which will become the butterfly that will migrate to Mexico. After reaching Mexico, the second-generation adults will lay eggs and die. That offspring will grow and migrate to upstate New York next spring and other points north and the cycle continues.
Students collected the caterpillars and chrysalises by scouring their yards and local fields for the milkweed plants that are essential to the Monarchs survival. Each student who brought in either a caterpillar or chrysalis will be able to tag an adult butterfly for Monarch Watch.
The students have also been able to watch the development of the butterflies as they move from stage to stage. Mrs. King devised a method to safely hang the chrysalises, called the chrysalis clothes line and each one is tagged with the date it was formed or found. The students record this data and try to determine the approximate date in which the butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis and add observations about the changes that occur during this phase.
The students have shared the information they have learned about the butterfly life-cycle with students in the school by bringing their findings into the younger classrooms.
As the butterflies begin their migration, students will also look for information on the Monarch Watch website to learn about the fate of their butterfly. But regardless of whether their Monarch will reach its destination, the students at Sandy Creek Elementary School have gone through a metamorphosis of sorts in how they view the fascinating world of nature. And who knows, maybe one of them will become the lepidopterist scientist who discovers what enables a butterfly to fly thousands of miles to a place they have never been before and congregate with millions of other butterflies and then their young will travel back thousands of miles to the Sandy Creek School District to begin the process over again. Either way, the students will never look at a simple caterpillar or butterfly the same way again.
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