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Understanding a migratory species in a changing world: climatic effects and demographic declines in the western monarch revealed by four decades of intensive monitoring

Abstract

Migratory animals pose unique challenges for conservation biologists, and we have much to learn about how migratory species respond to drivers of global change. Research has cast doubt on the stability of the eastern monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) population in North America, but the western monarchs have not been as intensively examined. Using a Bayesian hierarchical model, sightings of western monarchs over approximately 40 years were investigated using summer flight records from ten sites along an elevational transect in Northern California. Multiple weather variables were examined, including local and regional temperature and precipitation. Population trends from the ten focal sites and a subset of western overwintering sites were compared to summer and overwintering data from the eastern migration. Records showed western overwintering grounds and western breeding grounds had negative trends over time, with declines concentrated early in the breeding season, which were potentially more severe than in the eastern population. Temporal variation in the western monarch also appears to be largely independent of (uncorrelated with) the dynamics in the east. For our focal sites, warmer temperatures had positive effects during winter and spring, and precipitation had a positive effect during spring. These climatic associations add to our understanding of biotic-abiotic interactions in a migratory butterfly, but shifting climatic conditions do not explain the overall, long-term, negative population trajectory observed in our data.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the citizen science participants of the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count and the Fourth of July Butterfly Counts, as well as two anonymous reviewers of an early draft. Much appreciation goes to the Xerces Society and the North American Butterfly Association, respectively associated with the aforementioned counts, for making the data publicly available and providing them online through Monarch Net. This research was supported in part by the Trevor James McMinn professorship to M. L. F. and by the National Science Foundation (DEB-1050726, and DEB-1145609).

Author contribution statement

A. E. E. and M. L. F. conceived the idea. A. M. S. collected the data. C. C. N., A. E. E., J. G. H., M. L. F., and J. A. F. developed the statistical models; J. H. T. and D. P. W. managed and archived the data; A. E. E., J. G. H., and M. L. F. wrote the manuscript, while A. M. S., C. C. N., J. H. T., D. P. W., and J. A. F. reviewed the manuscript before submission.

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Correspondence to Anne E. Espeset.

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Communicated by Klaus Fischer.

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Espeset, A.E., Harrison, J.G., Shapiro, A.M. et al. Understanding a migratory species in a changing world: climatic effects and demographic declines in the western monarch revealed by four decades of intensive monitoring. Oecologia 181, 819–830 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-016-3600-y

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Danaus plexippus
  • Hierarchical model
  • Monarch butterfly
  • Western population