Each fall, monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico. These beautiful creatures travel more than 3,000 miles from the north to arrive during Dia de los Muertos, an annual Mexican celebration of ancestral souls believed to be carried home on the fluttering wings of monarchs. The monarchs’ arrival is a confluence of beauty, culture and science. Students worldwide can learn about monarch migration, as well as the migration of other species, with the help of hundreds of citizen scientists who document annual migrations for a nonprofit educational website called Journey North.
Journey North was founded in 1994 by Elizabeth Howard, a Minnesotan who grew up in the lake area and attended Minnetonka High School. Howard has a background in biology and spent time after college doing field research. She observed scientists studying the migration of many species and noted how little outreach was geared toward educating the public about these scientific efforts.
“There was very little online educational content at that time,” Howard says. “And since I love both science and education, a science education website seemed like a great way to combine those two worlds.”
Today, more than 200,000 visitors a month visit the Journey North website. The organization engages students and citizen scientists around the globe in tracking wildlife migration and seasonal change. When monarchs journey north from Mexico in the spring, they are at the end of their lives. They lay eggs across Texas and the Gulf states. Those eggs develop into adult butterfliers and journey farther north to places like Minnesota in late May and early June. Volunteer citizen scientists log on and report when see their first monarch or robin, hummingbird or tulip.The seasonal wave of these migrations can be viewed with info-graphics on the website.
According to Howard, last year marked the smallest winter monarch population ever recorded in Mexico. Only three acres of Mexican forest were covered with monarchs, compared to the average 17 acres. “Drought conditions in the corn belt likely contributed to this past spring’s small monarch population,” says Howard. She notes that the monarchs can probably bounce back, since one monarch can lay up to 500 eggs. But predators and parasites prevent more than 10 percent of monarchs from reaching adulthood. These complications associated with studying these migratory butterflies make the volunteer efforts of Journey North a vital component.One way Journey North educates students about monarch migration is through its symbolic migration program. A total of 675 schools across the United States and Canada participate in this program, in which students create a paper ambassador butterfly representative of their school and geographic area. Each student can also create a small life-size butterfly. The ambassador butterflies include a classroom message and are sent along with the smaller paper butterflies to students in Mexico. Kids can look at an online map to see where their ambassador butterfly lands.
In spring, these paper butterflies take a journey north through the mail. As with a real migration, the small butterflies are mixed and scattered across participating schools. Students check the website to see where their original butterfly ended up. It could land anywhere from Ohio to Alberta.Beth Allen of Deephaven coordinates the symbolic migration program for Journey North from Minnesota. She says, “This a great way to tie the entire migration education story together and teach children that monarchs are a shared resource.”The generous support of Annenberg Learner, a division of the Annenberg Foundation, and ongoing charitable donations make Journey North classroom resources, like those for symbolic migration, entirely free to educators and others who may be interested. Whether you’re a citizen scientist, a teacher, a philanthropist or are simply curious to learn more about species migration, visit Journey North. Thanks to Howard and teams of dedicated volunteers, a treasure trove of information is only a few clicks away.
Visit journeynorth.org for more information.