The Michigan Butterflies Project

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Increasing the monarch population through habitat restoration and education...

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Like all living things, butterflies get sick, too. We want to see if we can prevent, cure, or lessen the effects of certain parasitic infections. We hope to do this by feeding the caterpillars certain kinds of milkweed. Preliminary research done by other scientists seem to indicate that this may be possible.

We hope to be able to present our initial findings at the end of 2011.

A novel experimental method was developed to study the effects of cardiac glycosides on the reproductive success and growth of Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in a controlled environment. Monarch butterflies appropriate cardiac glycosides directly from their main food source, milkweed (Asclepias spp), which reports have shown that the larvae have been feeding on at least 27 of the 108 known North American species of milkweed (Ackery & Vane-Wright, 1984). Cardiac glycosides act as a chemical defense for the Monarch, as these glycosides inhibit animal cells from maintaining a proper K+, Ca+ concentration gradient. Although cardiac glycosides are not always fatal for Monarchs, studies have shown that it has a negative affect for first-instar larval survival and overall growth and development (Zalucki et al., 2001). Most of the time, female Monarchs prefer to lay their eggs on milkweed with intermediate cardiac glycoside levels (Zalucki et al., 1989) by displaying post-alighting discrimination against plants with low or high cardiac glycoside concentrations.

Disease Prevention in Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus)

The Effects of Cardiac Glycosides on the Reproductive Success and Growth Rate of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus)

Research in Progress

Monarchs are poisonous because they eat poisonous milkweed. Therefore, milkweed is good for monarchs, right? Well, the answer may not be as black and white as it seems. There seems to be some evidence milkweed is good AND bad for monarchs. Yes, milkweed helps protect them from predators. However, it may stunt their growth or even kill them! What if we feed them milkweed that has a low concentration of the poisonous chemical? Would this make them develop faster, grow bigger, or live longer? It just might.

We hope to be able to present our initial findings at the end of 2011.

           Ophryocystis elektroskirrha (Oe) is a protozoan infection that can be spread by sexual and casual contact. This means that it can be spread when the butterflies breed, when female butterflies lay eggs, and when an infected butterfly is close to an uninfected butterfly. It can be hard to diagnose Oe because infected individuals may look ‘normal’. It is difficult to test for Oe until the monarch is a butterfly. Testing is done by looking at butterfly scales under a microscope.

           Heavily infected caterpillars may have difficulty molting, move slower, or die. As the infected monarch pupates, it may have a brownish color. If an infected pupa emerges, it is usually mis-shapen. The wings can  be malformed, the abdomen can be swollen, or the pupa may not fully emerge. If an infected butterfly manages to look ‘normal’; it will fly slower, or die sooner than usual. These infected butterflies will infect others in the population.

           Preliminary data from other researchers (de Roode, 2008) indicates that certain milkweed (Asclepias spp) types can kill the protozoan. We will use their data to choose our milkweed to see if we can replicate their data. If we can replicate their data, this information can be used by other butterfly breeders, researchers, and exhibits across North America.

To join us as an intern, click here.