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Flockhart TTD, JP Pichancourt, DR Norris and TG Martin (2015) Unravelling the annual cycle in a migratory animal: breeding-season habitat loss drives population declines of monarch butterflies. JOURNAL OF ANIMAL ECOLOGY 84(1):155-165

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Threats to migratory animals can occur at multiple periods of the annual cycle that are separated by thousands of kilometres and span international borders. Populations of the iconic monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of eastern North America have declined over the last 21 years. Three hypotheses have been posed to explain the decline: habitat loss on the overwintering grounds in Mexico, habitat loss on the breeding grounds in the United States and Canada, and extreme weather events.
Our objectives were to assess population viability, determine which life stage, season and geographical region are contributing the most to population dynamics and test the three hypotheses that explain the observed population decline.
We developed a spatially structured, stochastic and density-dependent periodic projection matrix model that integrates patterns of migratory connectivity and demographic vital rates across the annual cycle. We used perturbation analysis to determine the sensitivity of population abundance to changes in vital rate among life stages, seasons and geographical regions. Next, we compared the singular effects of each threat to the full model where all factors operate concurrently. Finally, we generated predictions to assess the risk of host plant loss as a result of genetically modified crops on current and future monarch butterfly population size and extinction probability.
Our year-round population model predicted population declines of 14% and a quasi-extinction probability (5% within a century. Monarch abundance was more than four times more sensitive to perturbations of vital rates on the breeding grounds than on the wintering grounds. Simulations that considered only forest loss or climate change in Mexico predicted higher population sizes compared to milkweed declines on the breeding grounds. Our model predictions also suggest that mitigating the negative effects of genetically modified crops results in higher population size and lower extinction risk.
Recent population declines stem from reduction in milkweed host plants in the United States that arise from increasing adoption of genetically modified crops and land-use change, not from climate change or degradation of forest habitats in Mexico. Therefore, reducing the negative effects of host plant loss on the breeding grounds is the top conservation priority to slow or halt future population declines of monarch butterflies in North America.