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11-MAR-02

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Be sure to read our initial response to the Catastrophic Mortality at www.MonarchWatch.org/news/021102.html

Post-Storm Visit to the Monarch Overwintering Sites in Mexico

by Chip Taylor

11 March 2002

The following is a brief account of Chip Taylor’s recent trip to the overwintering colonies.

We are usually only able to visit the overwintering monarch colonies in Mexico when delivering materials on behalf of Adopt-a-Classroom (www.MonarchWatch.org/aac/2002) each January. This year I was able to get to the colonies a second time because I agreed to be a keynote speaker at a joint meeting of the Mexican Entomological Society and the Southwestern Branch of the Entomological Society of America in Guanajuato on the 24th of February. Guanajuato is in central Mexico about 5 hours by car to the northwest of the colonies and after my talk I rented a car and headed for Angangueo. I arrived in Angangueo about 6:30 that evening to find that my host family, the Kusts, had not yet returned from a trip. I had dinner at Los Arcos, a small restaurant adjacent to the main church in the center of town. After dinner I headed for the Don Bruno, the hotel in which many of the monarch tours stay overnight, to see if there might be anyone there I knew. I hadn’t gone but a block when I ran into Dave and Kay Kust and their delightful children, Katie, Joseph, and Ellie who had just arrived by bus from Morelia. While getting settled in at the Kust’s, Dave mentioned that Bill Calvert was spending the night at the Don Bruno so after a few minutes I headed in that direction to see if I could buy "Wild Bill" a beer. (I tease Bill by calling him "Wild Bill" for the same reason that you might call a very large person "Tiny"). I caught up with Bill as he was about to give a lecture to his tour group and we all spent a wonderful two hours talking monarchs.

When I returned to Dave’s house, the rest of the evening was spent reviewing events of the previous six weeks. During this time, Dave had acquired 540 tags, participated in the post-storm mortality study led by Lincoln Brower, given many television and newspaper interviews about the storm-related devastation, hosted a New York Times Reporter and her family, and helped plan and carry out a burial ceremony (complete with headstone and taps) for over 3,000 monarchs that were part of the mortality study. Dave and family are having a memorable year to say the least.

On Tuesday morning we headed for Zitacuaro to change dollars into pesos in preparation for buying more stags. Later, we arrived at El Rosario where we purchased tags from several guides. Many of the tags looked a bit faded but, not being suspicious or sufficiently cautious, we bought them thinking that they had faded due to the conditions in the forest. Within an hour, as we wrote down the numbers, we knew something was wrong - there were just too many tags in the same three letter series. We refused to buy any more tags and told the guides that these were false tags. They insisted that they had all come from butterflies and indeed all the tags had scales indicating that they had been applied to butterflies. We had many initial theories about the possible origin of these tags, all of which proved to be wrong. After diner more tag collectors came to Dave’s house to sell tags and we began to warn all the local people not to buy, sell or trade tags in the ADF, AFY, AES, and AHR series. Later in the evening Carol Jordan, Don Davis, Gary Stell, Marc Stell (Gary’s son), Paul Cherubini, Ron Wildman, Chris Goodwin, (Carol Cullar, was ill and stayed at the hotel) stopped in for a visit at the Kust’s. Gary had also bought tags at El Rosario as a contribution to MW. Most of his tags were valid but he also had a number of bogus tags.

Most of Wednesday was spent recording tag data, buying tags at Chincua and contemplating the tag problem. After we received a communication from Cathy Walters in the Monarch Watch office indicating that the series in question were almost entirely represented by returned data sheets, Dave looked at the tags carefully with his high powered "granny glasses". The tags were counterfeit and differed in many ways from Monarch Watch tags! The differences between the valid and phoney tags are easy to spot once you’ve seen them. Thereafter, we resolved to double our efforts to inform the local people of the bad tags. Fortunately, Dave had purchased most of his tags from school boys and families who searched through the piles of dead monarchs at the colonies after school. There were no bogus tags in these groups and none from Chincua.

Late on Thursday morning at El Rosario we met with entomologists, 104 in all, who had been at the meeting in Guanajuato. Dave and I served as guides for their three-hour visit to the colony. In spite of the low numbers of remaining monarchs, about .5 hectares, they were impressed and we made some good contacts. After leaving El Rosario, we headed for a local store that serves as a vendor for one of the nearby trout farms. Dave helped collect the trout from the holding pond and later prepared a fine trout dinner.

Early on Friday morning we went to Chincua. Our specific mission was to get to the Llano de Toros and the site where the monarchs had been at the time of the storm of 12-16 January. Originally, the colony at this site had occupied about 2.96 hectares (5.9 acres). There were few live butterflies remaining as we walked into this monarch graveyard and most of these appeared to be weak and unlikely to survive much longer. Lincoln Brower and his team estimated that 74% of this colony had died in the storm. The entire area was covered by a carpet of dead monarchs, in piles up to 8 inches or more in depth. It reminds one of a deciduous forest in the fall with a thick layer of leaves. On the top, the butterflies were still in good condition but as one dug deeper they were beginning to rot. The odor was not as strong as I expected and similar to, but not as strong as, dead masses of honey bees that I have frequently encountered while doing bee research. There was very little green in the understory. Most of the vegetation on the forest floor had browned as the result of the killing freezes and flowers, which can be common in February in these forests, were rare. It was strange to look up in the trees to see masses of dead monarchs still clinging to the branches. At one point, I thought I spotted a mating pair in this desolate scene but as I focused the camera it became apparent that the two butterflies were dead yet still clinging to the tree trunk in a life-like position. Being among this mass of dead monarchs was certainly an emotional and thought provoking experience. Here was catastrophic mortality of an exceptional extreme - some portion due to nature alone and some unmeasured quantities due to large-scale regional changes in vegetative cover and management of this particular forest. It seems clear that we are still a long way from resolving how to manage the forests for the people and the butterflies. Yet the monarchs will come back and will survive as long as critical habitats, such as these forests, are protected.

As the morning progressed, we moved down the valley to the living – the survivors. How they survived, we don’t know, but approximately .76 hectares of butterflies remained after the storm. This is still a substantial number of butterflies and many were mating and others were gliding through the patches of sunlight between the trees and above the canopy. It was an encouraging site. Arriving at Chincua early was a good idea. On the way down the mountain we encountered literally hundreds of tourists, mostly teenagers from schools in Mexico City, headed up the trails to see the butterflies. The trails were narrow near the butterflies and I tried not to think about how the guides were going to manage these masses of people so close to the colonies. Virtually all the guides at Chincua had tags and we could have purchased at least 200 tags that morning had we not been out of money. This is extraordinary since fewer than 100 tags have been recovered from Chincua over that last 10 years.

We returned to Dave’s house about 2pm and I proceeded to pack. Kay was kind enough to provide me with a substantial PB&J sandwich and Pepsi. Before I left for Leon, I managed to take a few pictures of the urn, the tombstone and the Kust family.

We are grateful to Dave, Kay and family for all the assistance they have provided to Monarch Watch and the community of monarch scientists and others through this winter season in Angangueo. Their dedication and hospitality has been truly exceptional. I teased Dave that I was nominating him for Monarch Man of the Year and for the Monarch Hall of Fame. He has been the man on the spot and without his help we would not have been able to learn as much as we have about the conditions in the colonies and we certainly would have far fewer recoveries. It was indeed fortunate that the Kusts chose to spend this winter in Angangueo.

Dave, Kay, Katie, Joseph, and Ellie - thank you!

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