The Incredible Journey of the Monarchs – on PBS

She Was Completely Transparent With Me
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

What do you know about monarch butterflies?

A universal favorite, most people know that these showy orange and black butterflies fly south every year to spend the winter in Mexico. Many of you may have raised their black, yellow, and white caterpillars on Mexican milkweed as a class project or in your backyard.

But why do the adult butterflies migrate, and how do they get there and back? Who are the people and cultures they encounter as they traverse the continent from north to south each year? How did we learn about their migration, and what does it tell us about the natural world?

Creative Commons License photo credit: tlindenbaum

To answer these questions, and to see some amazing footage of millions of butterflies in flight and at their overwintering grounds, be sure to watch NOVA’s long-awaited special, “The Incredible Journey of the Monarchs.” It airs on PBS tomorrow night (Tuesday, January 27) at 7 p.m.

Inspired by Sue Halpern’s book, “Four Wings and a Prayer,” the filmmaker followed the butterflies in hot air balloons and high tech gliders, interviewing researchers and ordinary citizens in Canada, the USA, and Mexico to tell the story of these unusual butterflies and the unique phenomenon of their migration.

You can catch a quick preview of the show, learn about filmmaker Nick de Pencier, or see a list of monarch links and books at the NOVA website.

According to our friends in the monarch-watching business (see this film is “the best program ever done on monarch butterflies.” Don’t miss it!

Again, it airs in Houston on PBS (Channel 8) on Tuesday, January 27 at 7 p.m.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

The more things change, the more they stay the same… Recently I read an interesting book, entitled “Are We Rome?” The author remarks how in some regards the Roman Empire and the current United States resemble each other very much. Take, for example, the issue of border crossings.

Claudius Glyptotek Copenhagen
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joe Geranio

For those who remember reading about Julius Caesar and his conquest of Gaul, the Roman Empire went through long periods of expansion, followed by consolidation, and eventual collapse as a political entity. As the Empire was expanding, there was a famous foray across the Rhine into what is now Germany. It did not work out well for the Romans, as they lost several legions, allegedly causing the first Emperor, Augustus, to cry out loud that he “wanted his legions back,” while also decreeing that the river Rhine would become the frontier. In 1987, the exact location of that battle was established. For about a century this notion held: the Rhine and the Danube formed the frontier between the so-called civilized world and the barbarians. Then Dacia (current day Romania) was conquered and the Romans found themselves on the other side of the river again. In 272 AD, they abandoned this province in return for a brief period of peace and tranquility.

For a long time, it was thought that the incursion in 9 AD represented the first and last military operation into Germany. Not so any more, apparently. Recent reports out of Germany indicate that some time between A.D. 180-260, there was a major battle fought between Roman troops and Germanic tribes. The newly uncovered battlefield near Kalefeld-Oldenrode, is located south of Hanover. Coins, weapons and other military gear were retrieved from an area one mile long and a third of a mile wide. Interestingly, among the artifacts encountered was a Roman horse sandal, or hipposandal in technical lingo. You read this right: a horse sandal, not a horse shoe.

Boundary - Boulder
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

In all of this I see parallels to our current situation related to the border between the US and Mexico. What now constitutes the border area, was first inhabited by American Indian peoples, later incorporated into Mexico and ultimately made part of the US, either by force of arms, or by purchase. Along large stretches of this border, a fence is going up. One of the goals is to control who crosses the border and to safeguard life and property on this side of the fence.

All of this echoes sentiments expressed almost two millennia ago.With regards to the Roman situation we have the benefit of hindsight; we know how that story ended. With regards to the current situation, who knows? Future historians will have the privilege of assessing that scenario. Of one thing I am certain: future archaeologists will not be finding any horse sandals along the Rio Grande.

Contest Winner: What’s YOUR Greatest Adventure?

Congratulations to Graciela Moore, winner of the “What’s YOUR Greatest Adventure?” blog contest.  Her touching presentation about the annual Monarch migration to Mexico and stunning visual photographs that accompanied her story amazed our staff. As the winner, she’ll receive a $300 gift card to REI – to help her pursue that next great adventure.

Here’s how Graciela described her adventure:

My adventure took place in November 2007 in Angangueo, Michoacán, Mexico to visit the over-wintering site of the monarch butterflies. When I was little, my grandmother pulled out a copy of a National Geographic to show me photos of millions of monarchs. I was completely taken by the beautiful orange and black that covered the pages. The images were burned in my memory and I was so impressed that these tiny insects could travel so far. So, I took this trip to celebrate my 30th birthday. It was truly an experience I will never forget!

Since I have been back, I have shared my experience with all those that will listen. I express how impressive it is that this migration takes place within just three generations. I also express how concerned I am for the disappearing over-wintering habitat due to logging and the disappearing milkweed in the U.S. so important for their eggs. With the help of these sanctuaries, I take comfort in knowing that there are people making an effort to protect these spots and educate the public.

Go along on her adventure in Graciela’s winning entry, I Could Hear The Rain. Click here to view her entry.

Graciela, thank you so much for sharing your story with HMNS – and congratulations on being chosen as the winner of our very first blog contest!

One tough decision…

For those of you who read my first blog, you will note that I decided to make use of some of those old camp diaries that are just collecting dust at home rather than inform everyone how great the weather is this week.  So along those lines, here is my second contribution.

I was about halfway through my Master’s thesis program at the time this account was written.  During the early 1990s I struggled, as some grad students do more than others, with the various personal relationships I was in (graduate advisors to girlfriends – you name it!), struggled with finding a respectable thesis project (I knew it would be something involving Neotropical Mammalogy, and it was in the end), and above all, the struggle to do what is right. 

While this latter challenge became easier for me with age and experience, I think part of the reason it is so much more challenging at a younger age is because you are exposed to so many different strong yet influential personalities – characters that mold the sort of person you turn out to be for the duration of your life.  As you can guess, I was (and still am today) exposed to a great variety of folks, some true heroes and others not so much. 

This story takes us back to a remote village in east-central Mexico amidst beautiful tropical montane forest.  The subject matter revolves around a species of Neotropical bat – my fascination with these magnificent creatures was strongly influenced through two legends in our discipline, Robert J. Baker and J. Knox Jones, Jr.  These Horn Professors at Texas Tech University were strong influences on my character and dedication to the field.  In fact Robert and I collaborate on projects today, and Knox, though deceased, lives every day in my memory, as we named our son, Levi Knox Brooks, in his honor.

-DB, 13 August 2008

 El Cielo (Photo by D.M. Brooks)

One tough decision…

~25 May 1992
Alta Cime, El Cielo Biosphere Reserve, Tamaulipas, Mexico

I couldn’t believe it was already close to midnight.  We were sitting around the table in a small one-room dwelling with dirt floor, rough wooden table in the center, and the flickering light provided by a kerosene lantern in the corner.  The sheriff of the township of Alta Cime was out making his night-time rounds.  His two children were fast asleep, wrapped up in their blankets on the floor.  Sitting around the table were his wife, my counterpart Jorgito, my charming assistant Sue, and me.  Nobody had said anything for a long time – 10 minutes of silence with a strong judicial overbearing seemed like hours.  In my hand was a small cloth bag containing a living organism – a young bat that was dredging up our collective four ideologies, trying to find resolve what had become a huge thorn in our summed moral consciousness, which grew heavier by the minute…

It was my first trip to study Neotropical bats, and my first trip to this region of Mexico.  Sue and I headed south from Lubbock, stopping overnight in Junction along the banks of the south fork of the Llano River in the beautiful Texas Hill Country.  After the usual several hour delays with hassles at the border with customs officers, we were finally on our way to the southern region of the beautiful state of Tamaulipas. 

Our destination was what at the time was a brand new Biosphere Reserve called El Cielo (or del Cielo; 22055’30”-23025’50” N, 99095’50”-99026’30” W), located just south of the Tropic of Cancer.  Although this region had been worked actively by (mostly American) scientists for several decades prior to our arrival, it was not made an official protected reserve zone until recently.  [Incidentally, today El Cielo is visited far and wide by birdwatchers from all over the globe, as it is only a six hour drive south of the Texas border.]  The Biosphere Reserve model has three broad zones: a human use area on the periphery, a controlled use area in the middle, and in the core – a pristine reserve restricted to scientists traveling by foot or horseback (no vehicles allowed!).

Our first site to net bats was in the core of the reserve at around 4,200 feet in altitude.  It was a long hike in and a long hike out, but worth it when we arrived, as the habitat was absolutely stunning tropical montane forest.  Unfortunately, the rain during the evening our bat nets were erected yielded only a single specimen of a small fruit-eating bat (Dermanura [a genus which today is considered Artibeus]). 

Our second site at Los Cedros (~900 feet) was where the main field station was located for the reserve.  We strung several mist-nets along tropical forest edge, which yielded a great diversity of lowland, primarily fruit-eating bats, including two species each of fruit-eating bats (Artibueus jamaicensis and A. lituratus) and yellow-shouldered bats (Sturnira lilium and S. ludovici), and of course, our token blood-sucker – the omnipresent common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus). 

The two species of Sturnira were virtually indistinguishable, and could only really be keyed out by examining the ridge of their lower incisors (whether the incisors were dilobate or trilobate).  What was going through the minds of our entomologist colleagues I could only imagine, as we pried open the little bat’s mouth with one hand, holding the bat still with the same hand, holding a pocket-sized magnifying glass with the other hand, and illuminating our ‘work space’ with a headlamp, all the while trying not to get bit!

photo by L. Siles
 Common vampire bat
(Photo by L. Siles)

Our final site, the township of Alta Cime (~3300 feet) was met with excitement as Los Cedros proved so productive!  We immediately sought out the town sheriff / mayor / administrator, for just as in many of the old westerns, the head cheese of a given town often wears many hats.  We told him why we were there, and he kindly offered us a spacious and surprisingly clean abandoned goat shed to make camp in and devour our cans of spam and refried beans.  He said he would not be around in the evening, as he had to make the rounds, but kindly extended the invite to use the backyard of his own ranch house. 

We went ahead and accompanied him to his backyard, which contained pigs, poultry, and a small garden with large trumpet-vine flowers.  While it didn’t appear to be much, we went ahead and obligingly strung our bat nets, which proved surprisingly productive as the evening rolled in.  The pigs and poultry, respectively, lured in both common (D. rotundus) and hairy-legged (Diphylla ecaudata) vampire bats.  The deep corolla-tubed flowers lured in a nectar-feeding bat called the Mexican hog-nosed bat (Choeronycteris mexicana), which had never been recorded in the reserve!

So there we sat, around the table dimly illuminated by kerosene lamp.  In my hand I held a small cloth sack which fit comfortably in the palm of my hand.  The sack contained a young male hog-nosed bat; we could tell it was a young bat because the finger knuckles were swollen as the bone joints were not fully fused (un-ossified phalanges).  And thus began the dilemma – this species of bat had never been recorded in the reserve before, but in order to make the record official we had to sacrifice the bat to prepare as a museum voucher specimen. 

As a young grad student affiliated with the Museum at Texas Tech University, I had sacrificed and prepared quite a few study specimens, but none were necessarily of species that were rare in nature.  We found many reasons to sacrifice the little bat and many reasons to set it free.  Our morals were in a hyper-state of flux – well, Choeronycteris is not considered Endangered so it should be fine to collect it; but it has to be rare, otherwise it would have been collected before; but then again, as budding young scientists it would be great to prove our worth by documenting a new species for the reserve; but could we keep our dignity if the species was in fact rare, all for the sake of a published note?  What to DO? what to do…  [What would you have done?]

Post-log (13 August 2008): In the end we set the little bugger go.  Perhaps this was the right decision (if you believe in karma?), as I have gone on to document much more relevant records in the years that have ensued, including new state records, regional records, country records, and most importantly, new species.  At such an early stage of my career, the fate of this little bat that evening in Alta Cime proved an incredibly tough decision.  Such decisions became less difficult with time, and in the years that followed I collected and prepared many specimens.  But I will never forget the complex issues each of the four of us mulled over that evening in Mexico’s newest reserve, over the fate of a young nectar-feeding bat.