Monarch Butterfly Project at The Landings Entering Its 7th Year

By Fitz Clarke, Citizen Scientist

Fitz MonarchsIn 2008- 2009, I became interested in the Monarch butterfly that I was observing in small numbers at the Landing’s Sparrow Field and about the island, mainly within the yard of Landing’s resident Sandra Wolf whose side and rear yard contained large amounts of the Milkweed species, Tropical or Mexican Milkweed(Asclepias curassavica).  I became a contributor to the Annenberg Learner Foundation “Monarch Journey North,” reporting and documenting by photographs the Monarch sightings here at the Landings, Skidaway Island, Savannah, Chatham County, GA.

During this period I became aware of Project Monarch Health and the research being conducted by Dr Sonia Altizier into a protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha)(OE), an obligate protozoan parasite responsible for the deaths of the Monarch butterfly . At this time Dr. Altizier was, and continues to serve as an Assistant Professor, and Associate Dean in the Odum School of Ecology, the University of Georgia. I believe that Sonia has been involved it this research for the past 17+ years. Her research uses a combination of field studies, experiments, comparative analyses and modeling to examine the ecological and evolutionary interactions between hosts and pathogens in natural populations. Dr. Altizer has studied Monarch butterfly migration, ecology, and interactions with a protozoan parasite, asking how seasonal migration of these butterflies affects parasite transmissions.

On February 10, 2010 resident volunteers from The Landing’s, alongside more than a dozen staff members of The Landings Club’s Golf Maintenance Department (LGMD) met at the Sparrow Field and planted approximately 130 yards of the 150 yard berm that serves to separate the 3 ¼ acre field known as the Sparrow Field Wildlife Sanctuary from the green and fairway on #15 Magnolia. The field once served as a sod farm for the club, which owns the land. The Magnolia course is one of six 18-hole courses on the island.

The perimeters of the field and berm had previously been cleared of the very invasive Chinese Tallow Tree (Triadica sebifera). Skidaway Audubon served to finance the expenditures of heavy equipment for the largest trees, well over $6000.00, and volunteers in an ongoing program removed hundreds of these invasives by hand, hatchet and herbicide.

Golf Course Maintenance personnel ran irrigation to center of the berm and furnished the volunteers our own main valve. Half-inch flexible lines were run along the berm with 1/4” lines run to the individual plots established along the length of the berm. Wood chips were spread and plants planted by the resident volunteers and members of the two Landing’s garden clubs, from center of the berm to the inboard base. Golf Course Maintenance used their front-end loader to plant three species of shrubs along the 150-yard berm center with intent to establish a habitat for the resident and migrating birds, as well as to form a 7-foot high barrier that would be aesthetically pleasing to Landing’s golfers, while also serving to obstruct a view of an irrigation pump house, large liquid fertilizer white holding tanks and the weeded field.

Golf Course Maintenance is the caretaker of their side of the berm. They also mow the grass in the field and assist in weed control at the berm base. The field falls under their jurisdiction.

At the time of the February 2010 planting little did we know that the large center berm growing shrub Bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) would grow to 7+ feet; bloom approximately 12 months out of the year; serve as a major nectar source for the pollinators,; and also provide safe harbor for the Monarch butterfly. The plant not only provides the Monarch nectar, but shelter from the cold and inclement weather. Our Milkweed (Asclepias species), sole host plants (larval food source) for the Monarch and Queen butterflies, are but a few feet away and interspersed with other nectar sources along the berm.

By the fall of 2010 we had a goodly number of Monarchs and Queen butterflies nectaring the nectar sources, mostly native plants that we planted along the berm and the many native plants within the Sparrow Field. That mild winter of 2010 the Monarchs overwintered and the Bottlebrush provided ideal safe haven.

Apparently, as a result of my 2010-2011 posting to “Monarchs Journey North” of photographs of the butterflies with descriptions, Dr. Altizier became aware of our Sparrow Field pollinator project, and its over-wintering population of Monarch butterflies. I was contacted and informed that the UGA Odum School Ecology was interested in visiting our site and evaluating it to determine if it might serve as a location in the study of the Monarch Butterfly interactions with the OE  protozoan parasite. Skidaway Audubon, main sponsor of the Sparrow Field Project, gave its approval and excitedly welcomed the UGA pending research.

In the first week of January 2012, a UGA Graduate Student working under Dr Altizier, Dara Satterfield  arrived at The Landing’s and for four days measured, sampled, and studied our Sparrow Field Monarch population and Asclepias curassavica host plants. Our volunteers eagerly worked alongside Dara. We sent this charming graduate student friend back to the Odum School Ecology lab with Monarch larvae, chrysalis and adults to be studied in a laboratory setting. We were official proud citizen scientists with a mission to support Dr. Altizier and the important research being conducted under “Project Monarch Health.”

Dara returned in January, 2013, and 2014. I believe she will also return in 2015. I might add in 2013 we sent her back to the Athens with 72 chrysalises to be studied. In January 2014 Dara departed to the lab with Monarch eggs, larvae from the 5-instar stages, many chrysalis and Monarchs adults. We also provided fresh A. curasavicca vegetation. Keep in mind that, from 2010 until the first week or two of 2014, we had received mild winters and there had been no hard freeze kill backs of the Landing’s Sparrow Field main host plant, Asclepias ciuassavica.

The resultant percentage discoveries were soon evident from the microscopic findings of the Landing’s Sparrow Field Monarch stages. Our Monarch larvae and adults were infested with the OE protozoan parasite to a 95 % degree or more, as per research findings by Dara Satterfield and her team under the research eye of Dr. Sonia Altizier.

It is most interesting to note that the day following Dara’s 2014 departure from Savannah we incurred two back-to-back days of 18 degree temperatures with accompanying days of freezing weather that killed the eggs, larvae, and Monarch adults. More importantly it killed back the Asclepias vegetation, and hopefully the OE spores that were present on the leaves of this host plant.  To quote Dara, “we’ll see about how OE levels respond to the population crash and milkweed re-sprouting new growth.”

Our 2014 Landing’s volunteer spore samplings from netted Monarch adults will be documented and forwarded to Dara at the Odum School of Ecology Lab for microscopic study. Hopefully Dara will return in January 2015 for recovery of all stage Monarchs. We look forward to the OE findings.

As an aside Billy McCord, a full-time wildlife biologist, ecologist and naturalist with SC Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) is a mentor of mine since 2009. He has tagged over 16,000 adult Monarchs in the SE portion of South Carolina and communicates with us, providing his important scientific discoveries pertaining to the Monarch butterfly.

Landing’s Resident volunteers, following the example of Billy McCord, in 2014 began a concerted effort to net and tag Monarchs and to forward the documented data to “Monarchs Journey North.” At the time of tagging, we also take sample swabs from the Monarch abdomen. These samples are forwarded to the Odum School of Ecology Lab, to the attention of Dr. Altizier, for microscopic study by Dara Satterfield and other research graduate students. Shirley Brown serves as the leader in the “Project Monarch Health effort and additionally serves as the lead volunteer for our 150-yard Sparrow Field “Pollinator Friendly Area,” under the concept of Bringing Nature Home.” Shirley conducts scheduled counts of Monarch eggs, larvae and adults and forwards her findings to Dara

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