Sometime between learning arithmetic and reading, second-graders at Covenant Day School will help unlock a long-held secret of the monarch butterflies this fall: how migration patterns affect the spread of disease.The students are helping researchers at the University of Georgia who are studying ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a lethal parasite that affects monarch butterflies.Students will capture and test butterflies and send the information they find to scientists at the university.North Carolina is one of the states along the southeastern path of the monarch’s migration. Monarchs spend their summer in Canada and migrate in the fall to a small area in central Mexico’s Michoacán Mountains.“It’s an incredible story,” said Lisy McLeod, lead teacher of Covenant Day’s Monarch Butterfly project. “Most monarchs only live for six weeks but this generation that migrates will last for 8 months.”As part of the project, students have spent the last several weeks preparing a garden of milkweed and other plants to attract monarch butterflies.As the butterflies cross over North Carolina during their migration, students will catch them and place a sticker on their abdomen to get a sample and send to researchers.Students will also tag the butterflies so that anybody else who finds them will know when they passed through North Carolina.David Prise, a second grader at Covenant Day, said he has been enjoying learning about and looking for monarch butterflies.“I like seeing nature,” he said. “We wouldn’t have as many flowers without them.”Dara Satterfield, a PhD student in the Project Monarch Health project at the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology, said researchers heavily rely on “citizen scientists” like schools and retirees when working on programs like Project Monarch Health.“We can’t be in all of these places and people’s backyards collecting the data ourselves,” she said. “So in that sense, citizen scientists have been completely invaluable.”The project had 250 individuals request to be citizen scientists for Monarch Health in 2013, she said, adding that about 10 percent of those are associated with a school or nature center. Satterfield said she expects the data to show that migration makes populations healthier by weeding out those who are sickly.She used the analogy of a marathon. Someone sick with the flu probably won’t finish the race but those who are healthy will. So between the start and finish line, the proportion of sick individuals will decrease, she said.But overtime, the migration of the Monarch butterfly has dwindled. Scientists theorize it’s because of loss of habitat and climate change.As butterflies migrate less, they may be at an increased risk of contracting the protozoan, said Satterfield.She added that those infected often live one-third of the lifespan of a healthy butterfly.Satterfield said the research has larger implications for other migratory animals and humans as well.“Many of those migrations are changing and stopping altogether, probably because of habitat destruction or climate change,” she said. “It’s a really good way to use monarchs to study how declines in migration can start affecting infectious disease dynamics.”For students at Covenant Day, the project will help them understand the delicate balance between humans and nature, said Peggy Hawks, another teacher overseeing the monarch butterfly project at Covenant Day.“Kids really get to see the hand of the creator,” she said. “I hope they see the uniqueness of creation and secondly, that they do need to care for the Earth.”
Friday, Sep. 06, 2013
Charlotte school’s project turns students into researchers
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