Species Spotlight: Monarch Butterfly

By Michelle Ferrell, MNA Intern

Beautiful and bold, butterflies have captured the interests and imaginations of people for millennia. Few have been as iconic as the Monarch butterfly. With a historic range spanning over 3,000 miles across North and Central America, as well as the northern part of South America, it is also the most well-traveled. Every spring, millions of these winged wonders make the journey north as far as Canada from their wintering spots in Mexico.

It’s one of nature’s most fascinating phenomena, as no living Monarch has ever made the journey before, and yet they reliably fly in the same direction, year after year. By the time they reach the northernmost part of their range, five generations of Monarchs will have lived, bred and died, leaving their offspring to carry the torch. This final generation, born in late summer, will be the lucky ones to migrate south to overwinter for eight months before beginning the journey north again the following spring.

Monarch on a goldenrod – Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

As many of us have seen, the Monarch is a mid-sized butterfly with a distinctive orange and black wing pattern accented with white spots. Predators should take care not to confuse it with the strikingly similar Viceroy, whose hind wings have a black line that the Monarch lacks. This small difference is important to note, because the Monarch is toxic. Its caterpillars have an equally distinctive appearance, their stout bodies banded with yellow, black and white. Because Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants, the caterpillars grow up eating nothing else – rendering them their toxicity.

Largely the result of habitat loss, there has been a nearly 90% decline in the population of the Eastern monarch, which is the largest subset of the species and that which carries its migration into Michigan. The loss of habitat includes breeding grounds across the U.S. and overwintering habitat in Mexico, as well as a variety of habitats in which to rest and refuel on their exhaustive journey. This is a grave concern, as pollinators supply 1/3 of the world’s food and 3/4 of its flowers, and apart from being lovely, Monarchs are one of the most common and widespread butterfly species.

Few insects are as beloved as the Monarch. Several initiatives are underway to preserve the necessary habitats to sustain their populations, including the Monarch Joint Venture and Journey North. The Michigan Nature Association is hosting its annual Monarch March Family Fun Run & 5k at Mayor’s Riverfront Park in Kalamazoo on Sunday, October 1 to promote efforts to preserve Monarch habitat throughout Michigan.

Partnership logo

Contact Jess Foxen at jfoxen@michigannature.org to learn more, or register online. The fee for adults is $25, children $10, and includes a t-shirt and participatory medal. If you’re more into pizza than running, you can also show your support for the majestic Monarch by showing this flyer with your order at Blaze Pizza at 5015 W Main Street in Kalamazoo on September 30th from 3-7pm. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to MNA to support their mission of preserving Michigan’s natural heritage.

Read more about MNA’s involvement with Monarch conservation and keep current on other important news with the Fall 2017 publication of Michigan Nature magazine!

Threatened loons, a bus tour and ‘frankenfish’: this week in environmental news

By Allison Raeck, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA shares recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s some of what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

The Common Loon. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Common Loon.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Great Lakes loons dying in record numbers from botulism outbreak spurred by ecological disturbance (AnnArbor.com): Common Loons, Great Lakes birds roughly the size of small geese, are disappearing at an alarming rate as a result of a surprising source: Botulism E., arguably the most poisonous substance known to man. According to the Great Lakes Science Center, the toxin is transferred from rotting algae to algae-eating Gobies, eventually infecting Goby-eating birds such as Loons. The consequences are significant, as scientists estimate that 3,000 Lake Michigan Loons were killed from botulism in 2012 alone.

Photosharing websites aid study of insect biodiversity (Conservation Magazine): Technology has enabled everyday people help identify insect species across the globe. Scientists are examining the thousands of snapshots on various photosharing websites to learn more about special distribution and conservation statuses among insects. For example, a photo of an American species of assassin bug which was taken in Europe, revealing that the species has spread out of the continent. These photos can reveal where a particular species may be currently located or whether that species still exists, creating what naturalists consider a “democratic revolution in the study of biodiversity.”

Should Canada Geese be killed off instead of mute swans? DNR, readers weigh in (mlive): Opinions are buzzing around Barry County’s approved plans to eradicate its mute swan population. According to wildlife officials, the swans are an invasive species which can harm ecosystems by depriving native wildlife of food. However, many individuals voiced concerns in response to this movement, believing that Canada Geese are actually more problematic than mute swans. Still, DNR officials point out that, while the geese are a pervasive presence across the state, mute swans are still more ecologically harmful.

“I Will Act On Climate” 27-state bus tour arriving in Michigan Monday (CBS Detroit): Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm will join a group of community members Monday morning to host the “I Will Act on Climate” bus tour at its Muskegon stop. The bus tour is a step toward creating a national energy policy, traveling from state to state and rallying communities to act on climate change. The movement comes as a result of President Obama’s first-ever carbon limit announcement roughly two months ago. In addition to Muskegon, the bus will stop at Peoples Community Services in Detroit Monday afternoon.

Wild rice mounts a comeback for culture and ecology (Great Lakes Echo): Native Americans and ecologists across the state are working to restore native wild rice, a crop that had nearly disappeared from Michigan’s waters. Though the plant was once common in streams and rivers across the state, invasive species, raised water levels and property owners clearing waterways have limited sizable beds of the tall grass to less than one dozen. The Native Wild Rice Coalition, a group working to restore wild rice for its ecological and cultural significance, has implemented plans to educate individuals about the plant in hopes of eventually changing state regulations.

The northern snakehead. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The northern snakehead.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Predatory ‘frankenfish’ caught in Virginia nets world record (Mother Nature Network): A Virginia fisherman has caught the world’s largest northern snakehead at 17 pounds 4 ounces, confirmed by the International Game Fish Association. The northern snakehead is an invasive, carnivorous predator with razor sharp teeth. Adding to its Frankenstein-like qualities, the creature can breathe air and survive out of water for up to four days. Northern snakeheads were first spotted in a Maryland pond after their release from a fish market, and the species has since spread into rivers across the nation.

Share Your Yard With Amphibians

We share Michigan with 13 frog and toad species, which play a beneficial role to both humans and wetland ecosystems. With their charming choruses and appetite for virtually any pest that crosses their path, frogs and toads can be a major benefit to yards and gardens. It is even estimated that one cricket frog devours 4,800 insects in one year.

Like many of Michigan’s amphibians, frogs are small and camouflage easily among grasses, trees and soil. But with the right tricks, you can encourage these sometimes small and cold-blooded critters to come out of hiding and take haven in your backyard.

Take advantage of natural resources
A well-groomed yard may be aesthetically pleasing, but it isn’t supportive to wildlife. Frogs and toads are attracted to native ground cover, like tall grass and wildflowers. To welcome amphibians, leave leaf litter, logs and rock piles under trees and shrubs that provide natural shelter.

Build a toad house
Provide a safe place for toads to take shelter by building a toad burrow or toad house. Create a depression in soil beneath shrubs or flowers. Layer stones along the side and top of the depression, about 6-8 inches high. Or, reuse an 8-inch flower pot by creating a hole big enough for a toad to fit and placing it upturned in a shady area in your garden.

Build your own backyard pond
Add diversity to your yard by creating a pond, which is an easy ways to attract frogs, toads and other forms of wildlife. Recreate their natural habitat with vegetation like water lilies, cattails, fallen logs, ferns, wildflowers and tall grasses, which attract insects and other food for frogs as well as provide cover. Native plants and rocky areas outside of the pond serve as retreat areas for toads.

When seeking the ideal spot for your pond, choose an area on low ground and away from potential threats such as raccoons or runoff from fertilizer and pesticide use.

Ponds are best supported by clay soils and should not be built in dry, sandy soil. Ponds should be at least 12 feet long and 6 feet wide, with space for amphibians to bask along the edges of the water. Make sure the water is slow moving and shallow, about 1.5 feet deep, so that it is ideal for pond-breeding amphibians to lay their eggs.

Almost all of MNA’s 170 sanctuaries support amphibians. Visit wetland and forest type habitats for a glimpse of one of 13 species of frogs and toads. For more information about MNA and sanctuaries, visit our website.

The Dirt on Earthworms

By Tina Patterson

Like Rodney Dangerfield, the lowly earthworm gets no respect. Yet, this seemingly unimportant lumbricid is an indicator of soil health, and can dramatically impact soil structure, water movement, nutrient dynamics and plant growth. There are 21 different species of earthworms in Michigan, and 50-300 worms can be found in a square yard of cropland nutrient-rich soil.

Earthworms are made up of many small segments, each segment with many small hairs that assist the worm in movement, aided by a slimy mucus that it produces. Without a skeletal system, the worm is heavily muscled. The blood circulating through its system gives it a reddish color. Earthworms can live up to eight years, but most do not survive more than a year.

Moist soils are necessary for earthworms to thrive, and the majority of worms are found in the top meter of soil, most often just below the surface where there is plenty of decomposing plant material. Earthworms consume dead and decaying plant material and are prey to robins, red-winged blackbirds, crows and other ground-feeding birds as well as foxes, shrews, skunks, moles and garter snakes. During droughts or winter freeze, earthworms may go deeper than the top meter of soil. Worm tunnels have been found at depths of 16 feet.

Earthworms promote a healthy environment in the following ways:

• Worms eat microorganisms and produce organic matter in their feces or casts that becomes plant food.

• Casts help move large amounts of soil to the surface and carry organic matter to the lower strata.

• Earthworms help with soil drainage, acting as a conduit for rain, especially after a heavy downpour. These burrows minimize soil erosion and increase porosity and drainage.

• By fragmenting organic matter and increasing soil porosity, earthworms increase soil water retention ability.

• Channels made by earthworms are rich in nutrients and provide space for root growth. This makes it easier for plants to set a deep root base.

• As earthworms eat the plant and crop residue, the castings they leave behind provide nutrients to the upper soil levels and the surface residue is pulled into their burrows.

Earthworms are more than good fish bait; they play an integral part in keeping soil rich with nutrients and maintaining a healthy environment for farms, fields and forests. So the next time you see a worm crawling on the sidewalk after a heavy rain, give it some respect.

ENDANGERED!

At MNA, our Mission is to protect special natural areas and the rare species that live there. The goals of our blog are to cover the latest environmental issues affecting these areas and provide information about the efforts of our volunteers. Our weekly “ENDANGERED!” column serves to inform you about the endangered and threatened plant and animal species found in and around these special natural areas, and how you can contribute to conservation efforts before it is too late.

American Burying Beetle
By Yang Zhang

American burying beetles, also known as carrion beetles, are known for burying the carcasses of small animals, such as moles, birds, and snakes. They rely on carrion as a food source and for reproduction purposes. Thus, they are regarded by nature enthusiasts as master scavengers and one of nature’s most efficient and fascinating recyclers that return valuable nutrients back to the soil.

Physical Appearance:
Identifying an American burying beetle is easy; it is about one-and-a-half inches long with a shiny black body and bright orange markings. A large shield-like area, called the pronotum, connects its head and wings. A large orange marking on the pronotum is the beetle’s most distinctive feature shared with other beetles. It also has an orange marking on its head (triangular on females and rectangular on males) and scallop-shaped orange markings on its wing covers. A club-like antennae with notable orange tips can detect a dead animal from up to two miles away.

Preferred Habitat:

Understanding what habitat the American burying beetle prefers is quite tricky. As reported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the beetle has been found in various types of habitats including oak-pine woodlands, open fields, oak-hickory forests, open grasslands and edge habitats. The beetle’s habitat preference, especially reproductive habitat, is still not fully understood. However, research indicates that because the beetles require rotting bodies of small animals to feed on and reproduce, carrion availability may be the greatest factor in determining where the species survives.

Life Cycle:
American burying beetles are usually active at night, live for only one year and typically reproduce once. They bury themselves in the soil to overwinter when the temperature is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. When the temperature gets warmer, male beetles look for carcasses in which to mate and reproduce.

After finding a carcass, the male releases pheromone from the tip of its abdomen to attract mates. Beetles often fight among themselves over the carcass (males fighting males and females fighting females) until one pair wins. The pair buries the carcass, mates and the female lays eggs on the carcass. The larvae feed on the carcass for about a week, and sometimes both parents digest the flesh and regurgitate liquid food for the larvae to consume. The larvae crawl into the soil to develop, and then emerge 45-to-60 days later.

List Status:
Historically, American burying beetles existed in the eastern half of North America from southern Ontario, Canada and the northern peninsula of Michigan to the southern Atlantic coastal plain. The number and range of the species has declined so drastically that the beetle is only known to be present in four states: Nebraska, Rhode Island, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

The reason the American burying beetle has disappeared from many areas remains a mystery. However, declines could be attributed to habitat fragmentation and loss, carcass limitation, pesticide use and disease. Increased lighting at night due to human development is also plausible because it could disrupt the beetle’s night activities, thus possibly interfering with reproduction.

Although presumed extirpated in Michigan until rediscovered, the beetle has been known to inhabit areas near Kalamazoo, Detroit and Marquette. MNA has ideal habitat for this species at Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary, Wilcox Warnes Nature Sanctuary and Echo Lake Nature Sanctuary, among others.

Protection Efforts:
The American burying beetle plays an important role in the environment. It recycles carcasses and returns valuable nutrients to the soil, and it is also an indicator species of a healthy environment.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an established recovery plan prioritizes tasks necessary in saving the beetle. These priorities include protecting and monitoring existing population, maintaining captive populations and conducting ecological studies.

How You Can Help:
Open your eyes while walking in nature. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is trying to identify possible populations of the beetles in the state. If you think you spot an American burying beetle, take a photo and note the date and location of the sighting including the county, township, section and the nearest road intersection, and draw a map indicating the directions. Please send the information to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Division, Natural Heritage Program, PO Box 30180, Lansing MI 48909-7680.

MNA volunteers are currently working to protect this and other endangered and threatened species, and you can help too. Join our efforts as a volunteer removing invasive plants in the special natural areas where this species lives. Or, become a steward and take responsibility for planning efforts to maintain a specific MNA sanctuary. To find out how to get involved, visit our website.