Today is an auspicious day in the annals of monarch lore - today a new version of the MonarchNet website was launched - www.monarchnet.org. For those not familiar with this site, let me tell you about it here.
About 7 or 8 years ago, a bunch of monarch scientists (myself included) got together and examined some of the many citizen science data sets out there on this insect and in butterflies in general. The idea was to look for patterns, compare long-term trends, etc. There were data on monarch larvae, adults, migration, etc., and they all tell a different story. Many of these programs have been running for over 2 decades now. One of the things that came out of this effort, was that we all decided there needs to be one central place (website) where the data can be viewed, and compared at the same time. This was the essence of MonarchNet. Getting this done though turned out to be harder to do than it sounded initially.
Originally, yours truly put together a very bare bones MonarchNet website, with a small page where some of the data can be viewed, but this ended up being not as effective as we all wanted. Plus, I'm not really a website developer, so the original site left something to be desired! However, it did (hopefully) serve as a nice starting point for building upon, as evidenced by this new site. Actually, I see that some of the original text is still present in a few of the pages.
So in the last year or so, some quiet efforts have been made to revamp this website, and these efforts have largely been spearheaded by Dr. Leslie, Ries, from Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Leslie put together a crack team of website folks and data managers who substantially revised the site, and made many improvements. After all of this hard work, the site is finally ready this week.
One of the first big improvements is in the literature compilation or 'Library' tool, which is essentially a list of every scientific publication on monarchs that exists, and it is searchable! for example, I just searched for all publications for which I am the first author, and I got 17 results (sorry for the horn-tooting). The nice thing about these results too is that they all contain links to the actual articles in the scientific journals. Unfortunately for the general public, most of time you can only read the abstracts if you do not belong to a university of other organization with subscriptions to these journals. But, if you're looking for scientific knowledge on monarchs, this is THE place.
But, the real jewel of this website is undoubtedly the new data tool. This is a page where users can select any monarch data set (from an impressively long list), either on its own, or in combination with others, and then display the long-term trends from those data in a graph - like the one below that I just copied from the site.
This graph shows the long-term trends in breeding monarch abundance from two data sets, the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) summer counts of adult monarchs, plus the monarch counts from the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Program. One of the first things you'll notice about this and all the other graphs is that the index of abundance goes from 0 to 1. That doesn't mean there was between 0 and 1 monarchs that year. This is simply a way to standardize the count data between programs. For example, the Illinois surveys involve transects, while the NABA counts are the number of monarchs in a 5-mile circle, so there is an inherent challenge that neither programs count their butterflies in the same way. So to put the data from all programs onto the same graph means the numbers need to be transformed to make these graphs. The actual values on the Y-axis are therefore less important than the long-term changes in abundance (relative abundance), anyway.
These graphs, and this data tool are exactly what we had all envisioned in our first meetings about this site. Here, users can see for themselves what we scientists look at every day, and in so doing, can learn a lot about what's happening with monarchs, without waiting for us to tell them.
For example, the graph above is rather important, as these numbers represent the long-term trend of adult monarchs in the heart of the breeding range - the American Midwest (and also the northeast - the yellow line). The other thing of importance about this graph, and the others, is that the counts from this year are not up there yet. It takes time to compile all of the data from the various programs, so these graphs will probably always be about 6-12 months behind. This is important to keep in mind, because I heard through the grapevine that the counts from Illinois are noticeably increased this year... So based on this graph, are the numbers of breeding monarchs declining, increasing, or staying the same?
Another aspect about these graphs is that there are no statistics. These are simply visual depictions of the raw data, and they are designed to be user-friendly. The points above each year simply represent the average counts per year, and these allow the user to visually look for trends. You can see if two data sets correspond, with similar peaks and lows, or you can look for evidence of long-term declines, etc.
So here we have it - the new MonarchNet, the ultimate source of information on monarch biology, research, and their population status in North America. I encourage everyone reading this to check it out, and also to play around with the new data tool. And the next time anyone wants to know what the status is of monarchs in North America, tell them to look no further than this site!