Interpreting surveys to estimate the size of the monarch butterfly population: Pitfalls and prospects

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Abstract

To assess the change in the size of the eastern North American monarch butterfly summer population, studies have used long-term data sets of counts of adult butterflies or eggs per milkweed stem. Despite the observed decline in the monarch population as measured at overwintering sites in Mexico, these studies found no decline in summer counts in the Midwest, the core of the summer breeding range, leading to a suggestion that the cause of the monarch population decline is not the loss of Midwest agricultural milkweeds but increased mortality during the fall migration. Using these counts to estimate population size, however, does not account for the shift of monarch activity from agricultural fields to non-agricultural sites over the past 20 years, as a result of the loss of agricultural milkweeds due to the near-ubiquitous use of glyphosate herbicides. We present the counter-hypotheses that the proportion of the monarch population present in non-agricultural habitats, where counts are made, has increased and that counts reflect both population size and the proportion of the population observed. We use data on the historical change in the proportion of milkweeds, and thus monarch activity, in agricultural fields and non-agricultural habitats to show why using counts can produce misleading conclusions about population size. We then separate out the shifting proportion effect from the counts to estimate the population size and show that these corrected summer monarch counts show a decline over time and are correlated with the size of the overwintering population. In addition, we present evidence against the hypothesis of increased mortality during migration. The milkweed limitation hypothesis for monarch decline remains supported and conservation efforts focusing on adding milkweeds to the landscape in the summer breeding region have a sound scientific basis.

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Pleasants, J. M., Zalucki, M. P., Oberhauser, K. S., Brower, L. P., Taylor, O. R., & Thogmartin, W. E. (2017). Interpreting surveys to estimate the size of the monarch butterfly population: Pitfalls and prospects. PLoS ONE, 12(7). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181245

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