Employing Very High Frequency (VHF) radio telemetry to recreate monarch butterfly flight paths


The overwintering population of eastern North American monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) has declined significantly. Loss of milkweed (Asclepias sp.), the monarch's obligate host plant in the Midwest United States, is considered to be a major cause of the decline. Restoring breeding habitat is an actionable step towards population recovery. Monarch butterflies are highly vagile; therefore, the spatial arrangement of milkweed in the landscape influences movement patterns, habitat utilization, and reproductive output. Empirical studies of female movement patterns within and between habitat patches in representative agricultural landscapes support recommendations for habitat restoration. To track monarch movement at distances beyond human visual range, we employed very high frequency radio telemetry with handheld antennae to collect movement bearings on a biologically relevant time scale. Attachment of 220-300 mg transmitters did not significantly affect behavior and flight capability. Thirteen radio-tagged monarchs were released in a restored prairie, and locations were estimated every minute for up to 39 min by simultaneous triangulation from four operators. Monarchs that left the prairie were tracked and relocated at distances up to 250 m. Assuming straight flights between locations, the majority of steps within the prairie were below 50 m. Steps associated with exiting the prairie exceeded 50 m with high directionality. Because butterflies do not fly in straight lines between stationary points, we also illustrate how occurrence models can use location data obtained through radio telemetry to estimate movement within a prairie and over multiple land cover types.

Publication Title

Environmental Entomology