Pair contributing to monarch project

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Two Central Otago residents have been bitten by the monarch butterfly bug.

Jo Davidson, of Alexandra, and Quin Burnside, of Cromwell, are part of a nationwide citizen science project run by the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust.

Mrs Davidson said the aim was to find out about the monarch’s winter behaviour.

“They do it to see the wintering habits all around the country,” she said.

Information she collected included the weight and wing length of specimens, whether they were male or female and the direction they flew in when released after tagging.

Each butterfly was given a unique tag, provided by the trust.

The tags were “tiny, tiny, about as big as your pinkie fingernail”, and were placed on the underside of the wing, Mrs Davidson said.

“When it’s just sitting on a plant with its wings closed, you can see the wee tag quite clearly.

Tagged . . . Monarch butterflies are tagged to track their movements. PHOTOS: SIMON HENDERSON

“And then people can actually go into the monarch site to report a sighting of a butterfly,” Mrs Davidson said.

“They can go 30 to 50 miles [48km-80km] a day .. a fair bit of flapping.”

The butterflies looked for swan plants, which was the plant they ate and laid their eggs on.

“So they lay their eggs on there and that’s the end of their cycle.

“Once they’ve done that they just fly away and go to another butterfly world in the sky,” Mrs Davidson said.

Quin Burnside, of Cromwell, began tagging butterflies in Auckland four years ago, and when he moved to Central Otago three years ago he continued the project.

“It’s really dynamic watching the caterpillars hatch and grow, and then watching them turn from a caterpillar to a chrysalis is quite amazing,” he said.

He said it “looked like an alien”.

“They rip their skin off, peel their skin off and then it’s just this green blob writhing around.

“It’s just as spectacular watching the butterfly emerge from the chrysalis,” he said.

“The wings come out, and they inflate, and they dry their wings, and then I put my little tag on them and set them free,” Mr Burnside said.

It was a learning experience for his children, he said.

“I’ve got two young children and they get right into it because I get into it,” he said.

“I enjoyed this sort of thing when I was a child,” Mr Burnside said.

Loving learning . . . Quin Burnside, of Cromwell, with his son Arlo (4). Mr Burnside is part of a nationwide monarch butterfly citizen science project. PHOTOS: SIMON HENDERSON

Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust founding trustee Jacqui Knight said the trust began collecting data about New Zealand’s butterflies in the summer of 2006.

“We encourage people to plant a habitat for butterflies,” Mrs Knight said.

The data collected was useful for understanding the effects of climate change, she said.

“We won’t know what’s happening to our insect life and plant life and animal life unless we have some base data.

Monarch butterflies were known as an “indicator species” as they were easy to see and not afraid of humans, Mrs Knight said.

“Monarchs are really great because they are in-your-face and you notice them.

“If a monarch flew past, I’d think “Oh wow, there’s a monarch,” but I’m probably looking at hundreds of other insects, and don’t really observe them.

“We’ve been doing it for 12 years, so if we see that they were present in this area, at this time of the year in the year so-and-so, say in 2005, and suddenly nobody is seeing them in 2018, it will be analysed together with weather data and should give a bigger picture of what’s happening to our environment,” Mrs Knight said.

Although the project had more than 10 years of data, that was seen as “young data” by researchers, who were looking for 20 years or more, Mrs Knight said.

The data was available for researchers to analyse, Mrs Knight said.

Butterflies were considered today’s “canaries of the coal mines”, and the information from the tagging programme would show not only how monarch butterflies were faring, but other insects as well.