Fall color in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in East Tennessee is dazzling, with crisp hues of red, brown, yellow and orange painting the landscape. Each September and October, the park features another autumn spectacle—the migration of the monarch butterfly. Each fall, these bright orange and black butterflies dance through the Smokies as they begin their journey south to overwinter in Mexico.
Ongoing research and tagging programs are helping scientists track monarchs, identify migration routes and understand the dynamics of the population. Programs such as Monarch Watch, an international clearinghouse for information about monarch butterflies, offer opportunities for the general public to get involved in the research.
Since 1997, staff and volunteers with the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, an environmental education facility in Townsend, Tenn., have been tagging monarch butterflies within the national park in partnership with Monarch Watch. The staff invites the public to get involved in this citizen science effort to monitor monarchs through free public tagging programs. Participants pair up with trained volunteers and spend the day in Cades Cove catching, tagging and releasing butterflies.
“It is an incredible experience, to be in such a beautiful place with the purpose of learning about monarch butterflies and taking part in this important research,” said Tiffany Beachy, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont citizen science coordinator.
Monarch migration is full of mystery. Consider that most monarch butterflies only live a few weeks. It’s the fall generation of monarchs, born in August, that are the migratory generation. The shorter days and cooler temperatures prevent this bunch from maturing enough to reproduce, which allows them to live for about eight to nine months—long enough to fly south for the winter and back again to reproduce the next summer. These butterflies travel up to 6,000 miles round-trip between their summer homes in North America and their winter homes in Mexico; each leg of the journey can take up to two months.
Researchers think that monarchs use the position of the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field to figure out when to head for Mexico and how to get there. However, many questions still remain.
The Smokies provide important habitat that supports monarch butterfly reproduction and migration, and Cades Cove is a particular draw. Several species of milkweed (a host plant for monarchs) are found there, and fall flowers within the cove provide food and energy for the butterflies as they begin their migration south.
Tagging adventures in Cades Code take place during fall monarch migration in September and October. Outings begin at 10 a.m. and typically end at 2 p.m. Participants learn how to carefully capture a monarch butterfly and apply an all-weather polypropylene tag to the hind wing. Tag numbers are recorded on a datasheet and the butterflies are released.
“It is such a pure form of joy to be running around in a field in Cades Cove with a butterfly net, learning about the intricacies of life in the field,” Beachy said.
Reservations for free public monarch tagging programs can be made on the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont website. All ages are welcome to participate, but children under 18 years must be accompanied by an adult.
Organized groups of up to 25 people (minimum of 10 people) can schedule private monarch tagging programs. The cost is $18 per person.