Some people might wonder why the Monarch butterfly is currently proposed for Federal Endangered Species status. Monarch numbers have declined significantly during this new millennium and there are several contributing factors. One concern is the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO). GMO crops have been genetically altered to be herbicide resistant so more chemicals can be used on crops, allowing higher yield to support our growing human population.
It is difficult for farmers to purchase seeds that are not genetically modified. The increased use of chemicals in farm fields has eliminated many of the milkweeds that Monarch butterflies require to successfully migrate from Mexico to Michigan.
Lincoln Brower conducted studies in the 1960’s to gain understanding about how Monarchs acquire chemicals from milkweeds that protect them from bird predators. Milkweeds developed chemical protections through natural selection that protected them from most insects trying to feed on them. Most insects cannot feed on milkweeds because of the plant’s poisons. Monarchs, milkweeds bugs, milkweed longhorned beetles and some others have developed the ability to feed on the plant and have developed ways to isolate the poisons without being killed.
Brower fed Monarchs to blue jays and the birds became ill, vomited, and had an irregular heartbeat. The birds learned to not eat Monarchs or other orange insects.
Later other scientists studied cardiac glucocides ingested by monarch’s from the milkweeds to learn how they affect the heart. It was discovered that if a person has an irregular heartbeat, the chemical could be used to help correct the heartbeat. After learning its medical value, the chemical has been manufactured in the laboratory and used to save human lives.
If monarchs were allowed to become extinct before the study, we might never have made the life saving discovery. Many, if not most, medicines first come from studying plants, fungi, and other organisms to understand their role in nature niches. Scientists do not just throw chemicals together and test them to see how they might be useful. They look to the natural world.
Butterfly and other insect surveys conducted by citizen scientists aid in monitoring the abundance and distribution of insects. Similar surveys for birds, mammals, and plants help us understand trends for various species populations. Most species have not been studied for their value to humans. The value of many has been lost to extinction and will never reveal their life saving secrets. What if the chemical in milkweeds and Monarchs was lost before the life saving use was discovered?
The recent local butterfly survey conducted by citizens like you has value for fun and learning about local nature niche relationships. It also is important in tracking population changes. The information can be used to preserve species that save human lives. Some people require a known human use before they are willing to support saving a species from extinction. It is impossible to know the value of each species. It is estimated that between five and fifteen million species live on Earth and possibly 30 million. We have named about 1.5 million so far and, for most of those, we know little about their value for us.
Insects that live in your yard might be human life saving organisms provided we do not eliminate them with pesticide and herbicide use. You have life saving control that is important for future generations. If we eliminate species, their value disappears with them. Encourage people to live in harmony with nature rather than trying to dominate it.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319. 616-696-1753.