The prize: $50,000. The challenge: Decode mysteries of monarch butterfly migration

A monarch butterfly sits on a plant shortly after being tagged and released in Navarre, Florida this fall. A new contest seeks a better way to track the butterflies on their annual migration.
A monarch butterfly sits on a plant shortly after being tagged and released in Navarre, Florida this fall. A new contest seeks a better way to track the butterflies on their annual migration. Associated Press file, 2017

Monarch butterflies can mesmerize their audience.

Just ask Eli Moreno, Tacoma entrepreneur and founder of startup co-working spaces Surge Tacoma and Union Club.

Fifteen years ago, Moreno and his family were vacationing in Mexico.

“We stopped by a monarch butterfly reserve where they spend winter, and we were just overwhelmed by the natural beauty,” Moreno said. “It was an incredible site, and we felt we were walking on sacred ground. We came back and decided as a family we personally wanted to help.”

Moreno has been a board member with the Monarch Butterfly Fund for the past seven years. The fund has launched a contest that will award $50,000 to the winner of its international technology design challenge to find a tracking technology to aid in learning more about monarch butterfly migrations.

Moreno said he and his family believe so strongly in this project that already they have contributed half the prize money.

The winner (individual or team) will be the one that best designs and develops an innovative tagging and tracking system that will enable scientists and environmentalists to better understand patterns of butterfly migration and the length of time it takes them to complete their journey.

The motivation is simple. What we can learn now about monarch butterflies may help to save them later.

Every fall, millions of these butterflies travel thousands of miles, leaving southern Canada and the northern United States to spend the winter in central Mexico.

This year, Moreno says, the butterflies have been slow to migrate.

“For a monarch butterfly to be in the Northeast (United States) this late is very unusual,” Moreno told The News Tribune. “They are not going to make it to Mexico in time before it gets too cold. Scientists attribute it to climate change, and it is fooling the butterflies to not go.”

Current tracking methods are not ideal.

“Contemporary methods of tracking this migration rely on adhesive tags applied to the hindwing, a limited system that requires researchers to find the butterflies sometime later, usually after death,” the group’s news release states. “Overall, this method fails to provide key points of information, such as the butterflies’ daily migratory flight and how environmental conditions affect that flight.”

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, director of the Arboretum at the University of Wisconsin, is optimistic on what will be gained from a prize-winning entry.

“The additional data that we can gather from an advanced tracking device would allow us to aid in the preservation of this migration,” she said in the group’s news release.

Chip Taylor is founder and director of Monarch Watch, a professor with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas and a Monarch Butterfly Fund board member.

Taylor said understanding the migration adds to our larger understanding of nature.

“It’s more than just monarch: It’s pollinators, ground-nesting birds, small mammals, biodiversity ecosystem resilience and integrity, respect for the system that sustain us,” he said in a statement. “The bottom line is that it’s in our self-interest to save the monarch migration and all the life forms that share the same habitats. The monarch decline — among many other signals — is telling us we need to slow down and to put the brakes on the processes that are leading degradation of the very systems that support life.

“Last February a reporter asked me, ‘Why do you environmentalists protect animals rather than people?’ Same answer: Saving wildlife is all about saving ourselves from ourselves.”

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell

Contest details

  • Requirements for the Monarch Butterfly Flight Challenge and submission process are at bit.ly/MBFCdetails.
  • Proposals are required before a team can be included in the competition. They must be submitted by April 1.
  • Each proposal must include team information, including the number of members and their occupations/qualifications, the team’s affiliation with other entities such as universities or companies, and the name of the team leader.
  • To donate to the Flight Challenge fund, go to bit.ly/2Ane11r