ABAC Student Catches Monarch Butterflies on Museum Internship in Florida

October 30, 2017

When she walks across the graduation stage in December, Crystal York will look back on many moments on the road to completing her bachelor’s degree in rural studies at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.  Chances are that not one of those precious memories will compare to a recent day when an orange and black Monarch butterfly launched itself into the blue Florida sky from the tip of York’s nose.

“It was truly incredible to be a part of this opportunity,” York, a senior from Pavo, said.  “Learning how to find, catch, handle and tag Monarch butterflies was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will cherish forever.”

During her senior internship this year with Polly Huff, assistant director and curator at ABAC’s Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village, York has become quite familiar with processing, registering, and tagging dozens of historical artifacts from the Museum’s collection. But she has never dealt with live butterflies.

“We were excited to lend a hand with the tagging of these magnificent creatures, a slightly different type of ‘artifact’ than we are used to working with,” said Huff.  “I saw this trip as an opportunity to assist with a worthwhile project, while providing a curatorial intern with a life-changing experience.  It was a fantastic learning opportunity for both of us.

“I worked with Crystal throughout the summer term for her senior internship. Her love for nature made her the perfect candidate to take along for this project and was a fantastic way to officially end her curatorial internship.”

Huff jumped at the chance to participate in the Monarch butterflies’ project at St. Marks Refuge in Wakulla County, Fla.  It’s an annual fall experience when wildlife conservators lead teams which tag the majestic orange insects which arrive in droves.

Huff said the day began by hiking the nature trail along the edge of the Gulf of Mexico in the pre-dawn darkness while the butterflies were still roosting. Project volunteers used strong flashlights to spot the Monarchs, and then nets of different sizes were used to capture the butterflies.

“We had to leave Tifton at 3 a.m. to get there to begin working at 6 o’clock,” Huff said. “Working in a wildlife refuge at dawn with no protection from the Florida mosquitos was also a part of the experience since project volunteers handling the Monarchs are advised not to wear bug spray.”

The creatures were then gently, but firmly caught and placed in a soft butterfly cage. A couple of hours later, the team began the tagging part of the project. Each captured butterfly was individually handled, examined for health and wing issues, registered under a unique number, and lastly, tagged with a tiny special sticker bearing that unique number.

Huff said the tagging team captured more than 30 Monarch butterflies, 24 of which were retained to be examined, registered, tagged, and then released. It is a tradition for teams working on the Monarch migration to release the tagged creatures by placing them on a team member’s nose. All the volunteers in attendance at St. Mark’s Refuge got to experience the unique moment of “lift off.”

“The team was focused on capturing and registering Monarchs, but we were fortunate enough to spot and handle a number of other types of butterflies including Gulf fritillaries, a Viceroy, several Buckeyes, and a Florida Zebra Longwing, among others,” Huff said.  “The team was also fortunate to closely observe a pair of adult bald eagles when we were leaving the refuge.”

The Monarch project stickers assist scientists in tracking the Monarch migration by providing them with a traceable route that recovered butterflies take as they head south for the winter.  According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, many Monarchs are staying along the Gulf Coast for the winter instead of migrating to Mexico.

According to the Refuge’s website, the annual fall Monarch butterfly migration is one of the most memorable events of the year for nature lovers and is directly in the path of the southerly migration toward the winter warmth of central Mexico.

For the Monarchs located on the eastern seaboard, this means a long trip of approximately 2,500 miles, much of that journey along the Gulf coast or directly across the Gulf of Mexico itself.

“No other butterfly in the world migrates like the North American Monarch,” Huff said. “No one knows exactly how their homing system works.  It’s one of the many mysteries of nature.”

Nature-lovers who happen to spot or recover a tagged Monarch butterfly are encouraged to call and report the butterfly’s tag number and location to Monarch Watch-the cooperative network of students, teachers, volunteers and researchers dedicated to the study of the Monarch butterfly.
Printable News Release