What Does the Gray Whale Watching Migration and Western Monarch Butterflies Have in Common?
The Plight of the Monarchs is Under Threat
It is not groundbreaking news learning that environmental factors impact oceans across the globe. Sadly, the footprint humankind leaves on our earth negatively impacts and is significantly altering marine wildlife habitats everywhere. Global changes stemming from the result of waste and refuse and population growth has a direct correlation of altered habitats of all mammals, animals, and insects, in every location across the globe.
Gray whale migration, typically beginning during the onset of late autumn in Dana Point California, whale watching capital of the world, is the beginning of a season of opportunity to bear witness to one of the longest migrations of all the baleen whale species. These majestic mammals begin their journey starting in the northernmost part of our world in icy arctic waters as the ice and colder waters begin to freeze. These glorious and awe-inspiring mammals head south for the winter where they mate and deliver their young in the Mexican lagoons. The arduous journey of the gray whale migration is not only one of the longest migrations whales make each year, but also one of the toughest for all whale species as they do not feed on either leg of their journey.
The gray whale migration is not the only migration taking place during this time of the season. Western monarch butterfly populations have very similar migration patterns, albeit by air, as they too begin their journey from North to South each year. Some of the same environmental threats as a result of global climate change are now threatening one of the most recognizable insects in the world, western monarch butterflies or Danaus plexippus. They need our help! Western monarch butterflies face serious demise and their brilliant and robust shades of colorfully painted orange and black with white dots, is dying from deforestation of grassland to farmland, climate change in both their winter hibernation zones and summer breeding grounds, use of toxic pesticides, and the threat of reduced food sources. With an already brief lifespan of six to eight months, native milkweed plays a crucial role in the survival of western monarch butterflies. Only embarking on their incredible migration journey once in their lifetime, it is crucial their food source is not depleted.
The impressively vast and highly evolved migration of western monarch butterfly populations last approximately 2,500 miles as they descend from their breeding grounds across Canada and California before traveling South to the forests of Mexico where they rest and hibernate. Throughout their migration, they grace our presence in California with their rich warm orange and yellow colors flitting and dancing in the wind above milkweed plants they are so dependent upon to make the arduous journey. Gorgeous western monarch butterflies rely solely on the plant Asclepias californica, or more commonly known as native milkweed. Their final destination is equally as important as the food source they consume. Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly sold across big box retail nurseries within the path of the monarch butterfly migration regions. This type of milkweed does not die out in the fall and as a result, it becomes a host to a fungus that kills the monarchs as caterpillars. The result is deadly.
“We had over 40 caterpillars on our milkweed and every single one died at various stages in the metamorphosis process because of the hidden fungus on the tropical milkweed.“ – Gisele Anderson
Why is this a problem for western monarch butterflies species as a whole?
What is the solution and how can we help do our part to help western monarch butterflies?
Western monarch butterfly populations are dying within their caterpillar populations due to the loss of native milkweed plants being destroyed by the use of toxic weed killers. Loss of habitat due to homebuilding and native vegetation is being replenished across migration routes with tropical milkweed in non-tropical areas. Planting native milkweed in backyard areas helps butterflies fuel up with the correct food source needed as western monarch butterflies continue southward for the winter. Native milkweed is difficult to find at local nurseries and plant stores making it confusing and difficult for the public to help do their part.
“Dave and I recently became aware of the devastation that these creatures are facing…over 99.9% of the populations of the western monarchs have been eradicated since the ’80s. A huge part of this is the loss of habitat and the proliferation of the WRONG KIND OF MILKWEED, a tropical variety (the yellow and orange kind). We invested in almost $300 worth of milkweed to help them out and it was the wrong kind…but it is the ONLY kind available at local growers because the RIGHT kind (the native kind) isn’t easy to get a hold of, and dies out in the fall and winter …when it SHOULD. The kind that the local growers sell doesn’t die out and becomes a habitat for a fungus that kills the monarchs.” – Gisele Anderson
Western monarch butterflies need our help now more than ever! So, what can we do?
The simplest solution is to add local, native milkweed to your landscape environments! If you need help, look no further. Our Save the Monarch seed packet consists of native Milkweed seeds and is available for sale locally here at the Dolphin Deck of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari, and are now available online for purchase. We have done our research and want to spread the very important message that planting the native variety of milkweed is the same as what monarchs are familiar with finding along the western monarch butterflies’ migration pattern. This variety of milkweed is the only food source for the monarch caterpillar and through planting your seed packet, you are taking local action to help keep these incredible insects alive!
Over the last 25 years, western monarch butterflies have been counted by an overwinter state wide-count produced by volunteers within public organizations called the Xerces Society’s Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count. Counting butterflies is vital to researchers in order to determine healthy population status. 2021 marked a considerable and surprising increase in overall populations. However, total numbers are still at record lows overall. Approximately “247,237 monarch butterflies were observed across western overwintering sites, an over 100-fold increase from last year. However, the population remains more than 95% below its size in the 1980s, when low millions were observed most years.”
One identifiable reason Western monarch butterflies have shown an increase in 2021 has yet to be determined. Still, studies are underway to see the cause and effect of resident populations, eastern monarch populations, and wildfires all have to do with the bounce in butterfly populations. Interestingly, the 2021 study found that monarchs chose to stay slightly more south than their usual overwinter grounds. The Bay Area, California, saw fewer butterflies than ever recorded, while Santa Barbara county saw the highest, hosting over 25,000 butterflies in one place! An overwintering site in San Luis Obispo had an honorable mention with a single count totaling 90,000 at the Pismo Beach Butterfly Sanctuary.
“This year’s total of nearly a quarter-million monarch butterflies in the West, although a step in the right direction, still indicates a severe population decline,” says Isis Howard, Endangered Species Conservation Biologist for the Xerces Society. “Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to double down on our conservation efforts. Harnessing the momentum of this upswing may be our best chance at aiding western monarchs and other at-risk butterflies.”
(Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count Tallies Nearly 250,000 Butterflies, By Isis Howard and Emma Pelton on 24. January 2022)
Whether you are saving butterflies or joining us this autumn, winter, and spring season, watching the great gray whale watching migration, we are thankful you are here and part of our incredible community.
Until next time,
The Team Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari