Migrating monarchs face new infection threat

Two monarch butterflies on a milkweed plant in a laboratory. (Credit: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Migrating monarchs may face increased exposure to disease at sites where other monarchs no longer migrate to Mexico and instead breed year-round on patches of an exotic garden plant.

With migration patterns of many species changing in response to human activities, the findings may have implications for other migratory animals, as well.

Resident colonies of monarch butterflies that breed year-round have appeared in coastal areas from South Carolina to Texas in recent decades with the widespread planting of tropical milkweed, a host plant for monarchs that normally grows in South and Central America but is not native to the United States.

Monarchs require milkweed to lay their eggs, and as native milkweeds in the US have become scarcer, tropical milkweed has become popular to sell in garden centers.

Unlike native North American milkweeds, however, tropical milkweed doesn’t die back in the winter in warm areas. With a year-round food source available, some monarchs have started to stay put and breed throughout the fall and winter—but at a cost.

Sticking around

“We learned from previous research with citizen scientists that monarchs breeding during the winter months in the southern US, rather than migrating to their wintering sites Mexico, suffer extremely high rates of parasitism,” says Dara Satterfield of the Smithsonian Institution, who led the research while a doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology.

The parasite, called OE (short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), is a debilitating protozoan that shortens monarch lifespans and weakens their flight. Resident monarchs experience high infection levels likely because of the loss of migration, which normally helps to weed out parasites.

“The ecology of monarchs is intimately linked to that of their milkweed food plants.”

Researchers wanted to find out what this might mean for migratory monarchs still traveling to and from Mexico.

“We wanted to understand if relatively healthy migratory butterflies were coming into contact with these really sick butterflies along their migratory routes, and if they showed evidence of being at higher risk for parasites, or changing their movement behaviors,” Satterfield says.

To find out, Satterfield traveled to Texas during the fall and spring migrations of 2014 and 2015 to visit locations where most of North America’s monarchs pass through on their way to and from Mexico.

Working with citizen scientists, she studied monarchs at nine sites, about half of which contained tropical milkweed supporting year-round breeding monarchs, and half of which contained only native milkweed.

Wing chemistry

Researchers determined which butterflies were year-round residents and which were migrants by analyzing the chemical composition of their wings.

“There are about 100 species of milkweed native to North America, and every milkweed species has its own chemical signature,” says senior author Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia.

In addition, milkweeds that grow in different geographic regions pick up distinct signatures of elements like carbon and hydrogen. “When the monarch eats the milkweed, it picks up those chemical signatures and retains them in the wings,” Altizer says.

Coauthors Mark Hunter and Hillary Streit, ecologists at the University of Michigan, “fingerprinted” the migratory and non-migratory monarchs by using the chemistry of their wings to identify what and where they ate as juveniles.

Satterfield then analyzed infection rates of residents and migrants found at year-round milkweed sites as well as those found at seasonal native milkweed sites.

The findings show that some migratory monarchs flying through coastal Texas co-occur at the same locations and times as heavily infected resident monarchs.

Of the butterflies sampled during the fall migration, researchers found only migrants at the sites with native milkweed. But at sites with tropical milkweed on the Texas coast, migrants and residents were both present, with migrants accounting for about half of monarchs at the sites during the fall.

Overall, 95 percent of resident monarchs were infected, compared to just 9 percent of migrants. But at year-round breeding sites, more than a quarter of all migrants were infected.

‘Migratory drop-out’

“The ecology of monarchs is intimately linked to that of their milkweed food plants,” says Hunter, a professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology department.

“When we alter the distribution and abundance of milkweeds, either by introducing exotic species or eliminating native species, we should expect to see negative consequences for monarchs.”

“…these tropical milkweed sites might be drawing in already infected monarchs… because of something we might call migratory drop-out.”

Satterfield cautions that the findings don’t necessarily mean that the migrants at these sites became infected by mixing with residents.

“What we think is that these tropical milkweed sites might be drawing in already infected monarchs,” Altizer says. “That could be because of something we might call migratory drop-out. Infected butterflies migrate less well and may be more likely to drop out of the migration, and when they see this tropical milkweed, they stay there.”

Given the decline in monarch numbers, the increased risk of infection posed by year-round breeding monarchs is concerning, Satterfield says. But there is a solution.

“We recommend that habitat restoration for monarchs focus on native species of milkweed, which are synchronized with the monarch’s natural migratory cycle and do not enable the year-round breeding that can lead to high parasitism rates,” she says.

“We find that swamp milkweed is a really good choice, because it’s easier to grow than some other native milkweeds, and it’s native to Georgia and much of the eastern US. In places where tropical milkweed already occurs, it can be cut back during the fall and winter (monthly), to about six inches for the stems—if you live in a coastal area that’s especially important. But even better, replace it with native milkweeds.”

Additional coauthors are from the University of Georgia, Emory University, the University of Guelph, and Western University. The National Science Foundation, the University of Guelph, and Environment Canada funded the work.

Source: University of Michigan