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  • Andy Davis

Tracking online interest in monarch butterflies

Seasons greetings everyone,

There is not a lot of hot-off-the-press research in the world of monarchs right now, so today I'm going to share with you something interesting I came across the other day. Apparently, Google has a feature that allows you to view all online search requests for any topic. Some folks may already be aware of this tool, but it was new to me. I just did this for the words, 'monarch butterfly', and the results are pretty cool. I'll be showing you what I found in this post.

I didn't know this but apparently, Google keeps track of what gets typed into every search. It's a little creepy and big-brother-y, but it's not like we can do anything about it. But, this does allow someone to track what people are searching for at any given time, and I could see how this could be useful, especially for online commerce. And it looks like Google has been keeping these records since 2004, which allows you to see how the searches have changed over time (13 years, anyway).

I'm first going to share with you the link to this tool, so you can do this at home and check my reporting - If you go to this link, it will take you directly to my filtered results. Here, I typed in the words, "monarch butterfly", and I filtered the results to only show searches within the United States. If you don't want to check it out, just follow along here. What you first see are a couple of figures. The first is a graph that shows the number of searches for this string over the 13 years, which I've pasted below. I modified this figure too, which I'll discuss later.

This is a graph that shows the relative number of searches for the words, Monarch Butterfly, in the past 13 years. The numbers on the Y axis are not the actual number of searches, but a standardized number - sort of like a percentage. The values at or close to 100 indicate the peaks in searches, and low values indicate fewer searches for that year. I guess Google doesn't allow you to see the actual numbers over time. this means that you can't really tell if the number of searcher per year is increasing or not.

This 13-year graph is interesting, because it shows a repeating pattern each year. Let me show you what I mean with the expanded graph below. This is a graph of one full year of searches (2014) - you can specify single year outputs in the filter menu.

As you can see from this graph, there are two distinct peaks in online searches for the words, Monarch Butterfly - one in the spring, and one in the fall - September, to be exact. If you play around with the years, you can see this same pattern more or less repeating over many years. Now if you go back and look at the 13-year graph, you can see that I had marked the dates of the peak searches from the last 4 years. It corresponds to September each time. You can also see a smaller peak each spring. So from all of this, it looks like people search for information on monarchs every year in a remarkably repeatable pattern. Crazy. My guess is that the online searches coincide with the timing of the monarch spring and fall migration through the United States. More on this later.

Now, besides the graphs, Google also shows you a map of the country you specified, so you can narrow down where the searches originated from. This is also pretty neat, because there are some cool things going on here.

Here I've pasted a screenshot of the map of the US, showing the relative number of searches (for the words, Monarch Butterfly) for each state, and for all 13 years combined. The darker blue represents more searches. States in grey did not have enough searches to register on the map, I guess.

Take a look at where the most searches come from - states in the MidWest and California. To me, this map looks a lot like the monarch breeding and migration range, although there are some obvious gaps, like in the southeast (more on this later though).

So what's going on here? If you ask me (and I'm glad you did), the graphs and the maps all tell the same thing - that people tend to google for information on monarchs when they see monarchs. Think about it - the most searches appear to coincide during the times of year when monarchs are most abundant, and the locations of the searches overlap with the areas where monarchs would be most abundant (or at least, present). Also telling is the fact that the online searches tend to taper off at the end of each year, when the monarchs are safely tucked in at the Mexican wintering sites (i.e. not in the US) - so, out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

As a quick check on this idea of mine, I also used this tool to look at searches for a butterfly with a very southerly distribution - the gulf fritillary. Below is the map I got:

Here, the searches for the words, Gulf Fritillary, seem to overlap with the distribution of the species in the US, which confirms my suspicion. People conduct online searches for something that they have recently seen, and vice versa - people in North Dakota don't search for information on Gulf Fritillaries because they don't see them.

No that brings me to my last thought - I wonder if it's possible to use this tool to help with an ongoing issue with monarch research. For a long time, we've been noticing that there is a dearth of migratory monarch sightings in the southeast region. To illustrate, I've pasted a screenshot from Journey North below, showing the locations of roost sightings during the fall of 2014.

Note that there is a distinct lack of sightings in the southeast. This has been on long-standing puzzle in the monarch research world. We've seen this same thing every year and we've always wondered - Do monarchs not travel through this area when they migrate south? Or alternatively, do people in the southeast simply not report them (or even care)? Here's where the Google searches could help. Now, look again at the map below, showing the states with the most searches for monarch butterfly, and look at the southeast (circled).

Apparently, no one searches for information about monarch butterflies in the deep south! Given what I said before about the apparent link between searches and sightings, I think this means that people don't see monarchs in this area in the fall. Or at least, not enough to register on Google. If I'm right, then this helps to solve a long-standing puzzle about the monarch fall migration. However, if this is true, then the next question is, why would migrating monarchs avoid traveling through this region?

I have no idea! But that's why it is so much fun to study monarchs, because the more we learn about them through research, the more we realize how much we have to learn.

Later folks. Thanks for indulging me with this post full of my musings. Next time I'll get back to some hard science on this critter we all love.


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The science of monarch butterflies

A blog about monarchs, written by a monarch scientist, for people who love monarchs

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