Scientific Research and Monitoring 2011-2019
Overwintering Season 2018-2019
During the past overwintering season, experts from the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) and the Natural Protected Areas Commission (CONANP), in collaboration with the WWF Mexico-Telmex-Telcel partnership, reported a 114% increase of the surface covered by monarch butterfly colonies. Although this increase to approximately 6 hectares (12 acres) was very good news, it will be several years before we know if the population has stabilized. Our continued work to increase the abundance of native milkweeds in the monarch breeding range and the continued protection of closed forests for monarchs in Mexico will help to ensure long-term sustainability of monarch numbers.
Vegetation and Land Cover 2018 Map
MBF funded the update and publication of the “Monarch Cartographic Series: Vegetation and Land Cover 2018”. Developed by board member Isabel Ramírez, working with Jairo G. López-Sánchez and Sara Barrasa from UNAM’s Center for Research in Environmental Geography (CIGA), this update is part of the long-term monitoring of land cover in the MBBR and its surrounding areas. This process began in 2000 and is one of the research actions of the North American Monarch Conservation Plan (2008).
During the process of developing the map, Isabel and her collaborators observed that to date the MBBR and its influence area are undergoing a “forest transition”. In other words, there was a turnaround in land-use trends from a period of net forest area loss (i.e. deforestation) to a period of net forest area gain. In the last six years forest cover recovery areas in the Reserve have been greater than the losses, although forest loss is still occurring outside the Reserve.
Additionally, agriculture in the surrounding areas of the MBBR has undergone an intensification process, and crops are changing from corn to fruit plantations (mainly avocado, guava and berries for export). MBF is promoting monitoring activities to help the Reserve’s managers evaluate the effectiveness of their conservation efforts and to support farmers seeking production practices that are more sustainable.
The map is shown below and has been peer-reviewed and is going to be distributed among all the local stakeholders.
Evaluation of Ecological Restoration
MBF funded undergraduate environmental sciences student Salvador Huitrón from the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, to evaluate ecological restoration activities in the monarch butterfly overwintering sites during 2012-2017. Salvador identified 766 records, taken during 40 years of monitoring the overwintering sites, by several scientists and institutions. He identified 10 priority microwatersheds and 24 agrarian properties in the overwintering sites and the subsequent analysis resulted in the the description of the main impacts of forest degradation in priority watersheds for overwintering monarchs. Among the main threats, in order of prevalence, were wind blowing trees down, environmental sanitation (removing branches and debris), fires, illegal logging, grazing, tourism, and landslides.
Salvador concluded his research giving several recommendations to improve forest management including conservation activities, restoration and protection that can revert forest degradation in the priority microwatersheds of the overwintering sites. Among his recommendations are keeping the historical record data base updated, use the data about environmental disturbances to improve restoration techniques and include the participation of the forest owners in future conservation projects. To read a summary and look at some of the maps that Salvador compiled click HERE.
Assisted Migration 2019
Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saénz-Romero, in collaboration with Dr. Arnulfo Blanco-García and his graduate students continued with their experiments on assisted migration. Among their experiments were 1) field/common garden reciprocal provenance tests at three sites with different altitudes; 2) Oyamel (Abies religiosa) provenance field tests at Los Ailes – this experiment, confirmed previous results, i.e. the protection of natural shrubs serving as nurse plants is needed for survival of oyamel reforestations when planted seedlings are young, and that an assisted migration up to 400 m of altitudinal shift upwards, has no negative impact; 3) proline (amino acid) production in oyamel seedlings under drought stress. Results indicate that seedlings under drought stress produced significantly more proline, but there were no significant differences among provenances. These results did not sustain the original hypothesis, that the seedlings originated at the lowest altitude (2960 m) would be more resistant to drought than the other provenances; 4) assisted migration provenance tests of Pinus pseudostrobus with 30% rain exclusion, concluding that reforestation at low altitudinal limits of the MBBR is feasible assuming that 30% of rain exclusion at higher altitudes is an indicator for future, more arid climate.
The research was published in Nature Journal in an article describing the feasibility of conducting ecological restorations using reforestations incorporating assisted migration to mitigate the projected impacts on climate change on the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. The results were also published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution and the Los Angeles Times also featured an article on April 9, 2019 discussing assisted migration but also the human component of the conservation challenges in a climate changes context, portraying the enormous relevance of local actors in reforestation programs.
Planting of 10,000 Oyamels Using Assisted Migration Strategy
Led by ejido Cerro Prieto an initiative to plant ten thousand oyamel trees adopting the assisted migration strategy was carried out from July to October 2019. Additionally, an assessment of the reforestation from 2012-2019 in Sierra Chincua, one of the main monarch overwintering sites was performed. This project will not only plant trees, but the results will give feedback for the design of a best practices and forest restoration strategy for the recovery of Sierra Chincua’s core zone.
Collection of Data During 2017-2018 Overwintering Season
From January to March, MBF board member, Isabel Ramírez, and her team collected data that will be used for four projects: one for the North American CEC (Commission for Environmental Cooperation), to analyze the sampled monarch’s natal origin (stable isotopes analyses will be done by Dr. Tyler Flockhart from the Appalachian Lab in Maryland); the second, in collaboration with Dr. Jeremy McNeil from the University of Western Ontario and Dr. Jocelyn Millar from the University of California, Riverside will attempt to find chemical signals that overwintering butterflies may leave behind on the branches and soil as clues for future butterfly colonies; the third, includes the collection of forest regeneration data in areas that were identified as being damaged by the illegal logging in 2015 to follow-up the forest restoration plan drafted by the reserve; and finally, Isabel and her students continued to collect climate data and soil cover changes for the long term environmental research project that she has been working on for the past fifteen years.
Monitoring of Forest Health
The Butterflies and Their People, A.C. (B&TP), led by Dr. Ellen Sharp and Joel Moreno, are training residents from Ejido El Capulín, Ejido Nicolás Romero and Nicolás Romero indigenous community to participate in multiple monitoring projects. In September 2017, B&TP hired one full-time forest arborist from each of these communities who regularly visit the overwintering colonies and provide detailed information about wildlife, species, and forest health over the winter period. In collaboration with MBF board member, Dr. Pablo Jaramillo, arborists have been trained to monitor a natural regeneration project as well as documenting birds, flowers, and mushrooms in Cerro Pelón. Thanks to this grant, the program began last year and has now grown, thanks to an online GoFundMe campaign allowing B&TP to hire additional arborists. We are happy to have contributed to this budding project that promises to continue helping local communities and the forest!
Arborists from the Butterflies and Their People
While the monarch butterfly is our main concern, many other organisms also inhabit the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR). This year, MBF funded a project to organize, review, process, and analyze acoustic, ultrasonic and wildlife camera files collected during 2016 in the MBBR by several NGOs (members of the Monarch Network-Red Monarca) as part of the existing data base in the National System to Monitor Biodiversity (SNMB).
Led by Belinda Ibarra López, independent consultant, in collaboration with the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature (FMCN), this project will improve the information on species dynamics and their populations over time.
FMCN received 39,520 received files which were organized, classified, and integrated into 62 fauna databases. Forty five percent of the data was analyzed and a total of 86 species were identified, out of which 31% are not registered in the MBBR´s Management Plan. Specifically, 60 species of birds were identified in the acoustic files, 15 of bats in the ultrasonic recordings and 11 of mammals in wildlife cameras. Below are some photographs from the wildlife cameras. The bat pictured below is under special protection and is endemic to Mexico.
Mexican Dog-faced Bat
The results not only helped to learn about species’ presence, abundance and activity patterns but will allow researchers to update species distribution maps, conduct censuses of the domestic fauna, detect and map habitat fragmentation among other things. All this data will contribute to better management practices in the protected area such as restricting human activities in certain areas during relevant periods for the health of wildlife populations and identify priority areas to promote the connectivity of forest landscapes among others.
MBF is very excited with the contribution this research will make to improve the MBBR’s Management Plan. Additionally, government institutions, the Reserve and local communities are all collaborating and now, thanks to this research, have the necessary tools to make informed decisions to implement the best management strategies for the area that are compatible with the ecological requirements. This will promote the ecological integrity of the MBBR and protect wildlife, the forest, and our beloved monarchs!
Evaluation of Ecological Restoration
This summer MBF funded undergraduate environmental sciences student Salvador Huitrón, from the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, to evaluate the ecological restoration activities in the monarch butterfly overwintering sites during 2012-2107.
Since overwintering sites of the monarch butterfly were discovered in Mexico, four decades ago, actions geared towards recovery of the forests that have been degraded need to be documented and assessed in a systematic fashion. Salvador will evaluate the approaches and strategies related to the restoration of the monarch butterfly’s overwintering sites carried out by the ejidos and indigenous communities during 2012-2107 and highlight their successes and lessons learned. This will allow stakeholders to analyze the current restoration activities and foresee future trends, as well as guide and strengthen the ecological restoration efforts in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR).
To do this Salvador will identify priority micro-watersheds of the monarch butterfly’s overwintering sites based on the historical records of the colonies, identify the main impacts of deterioration and/or recovery in the forests, and the ecological restoration activities carried out to revert the damage, evaluating these activities. This research will give important input for the development of a Best Practices for Ecological Restoration Plan for the MBBR and aims to identify all the local strategies and existing initiatives to provide approaches that are in tune with the current situation of the forests, restoration priorities and climate change trends acknowledged to date.
Ecologic and Genetic Variation in Oyamel Research
Another project that will be supported by MBF is for doctoral student Claudia Guerrero Vizcaíno, who will describe, both ecologically and genetically, multiple populations of oyamels (Abies religiosa) in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR).
Claudia will analyze the ecological and genetic features in the recovery of Abies religiosa in forest gaps where wood was extracted under various management conditions inside the MBBR. Her methodology includes identifying sampling sites with clearings caused by extraction in the oyamel forests as well as natural regeneration and/or reforestation sites. She will also collect soil samples to determine nutrient availability and record the various species of plants in the understory, to learn what factors facilitate or inhibit the regeneration of oyamels. In addition, she will carry out genetic analyses by collecting oyamel needles to learn about their genetic diversity, flow, and structure.
The maintenance of genetic diversity is key to conservation programs since it promotes adaptation and the evolution of populations and species. MBF is very pleased to support Claudia’s work. Her project will be one of the first studies on genetic and population ecology of Abies religiosa in the MBBR, as well as one of the first to compare the recovery of populations under natural recovery programs and reforestations as a component of public policy. We are sure that the results of her research will provide new guidelines to improve conservation public policies and management in the MBBR.
Assisted Migration 2018
Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saénz-Romero, in collaboration with Dr. Arnulfo Blanco-García and students Esmeralda Navarro-Miranda, Erika Gómez-Pineda, among others, carried out several experiments related to assisted migration of oyamels in his lab with encouraging results! After one year in the field, an evaluation revealed 96% tree survival rate. Seedlings were originally rescued from natural regeneration sites and grown for two years in a nursery. Afterwards they were planted under the shade of nurse plants on a deforested site. The figure below shows the results.
This amazing survival is due to several reasons including the fact that the seeds originated from the core zone in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, were rescued from natural regeneration in mossy sites which were carefully transplanted into nursery containers, were grown at a communal nursery at high altitude (3000 m) and planting on the field was done under the shade of nurse plants.
This made Cuauhtémoc and his team realize that it is necessary to produce local shrubs in communal forest nurseries and plant them on perturbed sites that don’t have any shrubs, two years before planting the oyamel seedlings.
The series of photos below show the assisted migration field tests for pine (Pinus pseudostrobus, reforestation site at 3010 m of altitude), with treatments of: (a, b) 30 % of rain exclusion, (c) shade without rain exclusion, and (d) control (no rain exclusion or shade). The project’s aim is to see the effect of rain reduction, projected by some climatic change scenarios.
MBF is very excited with this results that give us a clear strategy to follow when planning reforestations!
Support for the Butterflies and Their People
In 2017, MBF began to fund a new project developed by the Butterflies and Their People, A.C. , a new organization, established by Dr. Ellen Sharp and Joel Moreno. Their project involves training arborists in the Cerro Pelón Monarch Butterfly sanctuary to they can provide detailed information about forest health to researchers. Arborists wil monitor natural regeneration areas, identify flora and fauna, birds, mushrooms and other species. Dr. Guillermo Ibarra, renowned botanist and Dr. Pablo Jaramillo will train the arborists.
Overwintering Colonies 2016-2017
According to the CONANP-WWF (National Commission of Natural Protected Areas-World Wildlife Fund) report, the 2016-2017 overwintering colony in Sierra Chincua was divided in two fragments: a small 0.17 ha area located in federal property and another 0.42 ha in El Calabozo ejido. Both fragments were located just 1.6 km (5,250 ft.) from each other.
The colony in the federal property was the only one open to the public in Chincua. On February 18, on the way from C. Prieto, MBF Board member, Isabel Ramírez and her students visited this site and they observed that the forest was considerably thinned out. The exposed roots of the trees that fell due to the March 2016 storm were everywhere, as well as the remains of the fallen trees that were extracted. However, since the winter was particularly mild, there were flowers everywhere, which seems to have grabbed the attention of tourists as much as the butterflies.
Isabel and her students were able to get close to a fragment of a monarch colony at Llano del Coala. There, they observed a remarkable recovery in the colony size compared to previous years. The only sound was the wind blowing and the fluttering of butterfly wings as they flew around. The storm did not cause a lot of damage on the north face of this mountain. The trees where the colony was established were very young and the understory was sparse. A young forest between colonies was dominant, with very few old-growth trees and a lot of trees from recent natural regeneration. Experiencing this reminded everyone that there is still a lot to do so that the monarch butterfly remains a flagship species for conservation.
2017 Evaluation in Chincua
On 30 March 2017, MBF Board member Pablo Jaramillo went to the illegally logged area in Arroyo Hondo in Sierra Chincua to evaluate the survival rate of trees that were planted in June 2016. In collaboration with Arnulfo Blanco from the Michoacana University, six undergraduate students and Luis Dávila (from the Reserve), 10 permanent monitoring plots (100 m2 each) were established and each planted seedling was marked to determine whether it was dead or alive. The final data will be available soon, but early field estimates of the survival rate of the reforested trees is about 75-80%. This is excellent considering that many people participated in the planting process (approximately 60 people per day) over three working days last summer. The permanent plots that were set up will be monitored periodically over the next five years to determine if the reforestation of this area was carried out successfully or if trees allowed to grow by natural regeneration will outperform the reforested seedlings.
Assisted Migration 2017
Research on altitudinal genetic differentiation among natural populations and assisted migration of oyamel seedlings is ongoing in Dr. Saénz-Romero’s (MBF advisor) lab. In December 2017, Marisol Ortiz-Bibian, one of Dr. Saénz Romero’s students and lead author published the results of this study in a scientific journal.
Cuahutémoc, Marisol and team with oyamel seedlings in a common garden test
The research consisted in collecting seeds from fifteen oyamel (A. religiosa) populations along 50-meter intervals at elevations between 2850-3550 meters. Seedlings were evaluated in a common garden test over a period of 30 months. Significant differences were found among populations in total elongation, height, date of growth cessation, foliage, stem, and total dry weight, as well as frost damage. These differences were strongly associated with the cold temperatures. When collecting seeds close to mountain peaks, the altitudinal shift would exceed the highest elevations within the MBBR. This led the authors to conclude that A. religiosa stands need to be established outside the MBBR, on higher mountains and volcanoes, such as Nevado de Toluca, Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl and Pico de Orizaba, as potential future overwintering sites. Food for thought as the future approaches and climate change is upon us and the monarchs!
Assisted Migration 2016
Dr. Sáenz (MBF advisor) and his team will continue their research with a project titled “Non-regular planting under nursing plants and drought stress resistance of Abies religiosa rescued seedlings and Pinus pseudostrobus rain exclusion in altitudinal assisted migration tests.” During 2016, Dr. Saénz (MBF advisor) and his team of researchers discovered that oyamel seedlings originated from seed collected at an altitudinal difference of 350m, resulted in genetic variations in growth potential and frost resistance. This highlights the importance of considering the altitudinal origin of the seed source used to produce seedlings in the nurseries for reforestation programs, and the importance of carefully considering the altitudinal difference between the site of seed collection and that of reforestation. They also discovered that after one year of planting on a reforestation site, survival under open fields is 77%, while under the shade of local shrubs it rises to 95%. Based on these results, in 2017, the researchers will conduct additional tests and experiments to assess the differences in survival and growth of trees relative to the seeds source and the planting site based on climate and altitudinal changes. To view an article about this research click here.
Nursery tests of seedlings that were collected along an altitudinal gradient (2950 to 3450 m) at the MBBR. In this new experiment different colored spoons were used to indicate provenance.
Evaluation of Community-based Resource Management
Doctoral student Miramanni Mishkin continued her research evaluating the success of community-based resource management, this time interviewing people from the San Juan Zitácuaro and Nicolas Romero communities. These communities were chosen because they have done a good job conserving their forests maintaining more than 80% of the dense forest cover over the last decade. Miramanni observed that the struggle to protect the forest is still a significant challenge since Nicolas Romero still faces illegal “ant logging” and San Juan Zitácuaro suffers damage to the fences they use to keep intruders out. However, the success of both communities in protecting their forests is due to the support they get from external institutions, their small size, and well-defined boundaries. In the case of San Juan Zitácuaro they have appropriate leadership and constant monitoring which adds to their success. It is important to identify these variables to be able to make recommendations to other communities so that they too become successful forest managers.
Assisted Migration 2015
Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saénz, Dr. Arnulfo Blanco and their students continued their project to demonstrate the feasibility of conducting assisted migration of oyamel natural populations to compensate for climatic change in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
To test the altitudinal upward shift assisted migration, the team initiated a field experiment in July 2015. They planted 2-year old seedlings at an altitude of 3440 m to anticipate the climatic change expected for the year 2030. Additionally, this field experiment includes two treatments: seedlings planted with and without coverage of local bushes to test the feasibility of using nurse plants to protect young Abies religiosa seedlings from extreme temperatures. The research is ongoing and will provide valuable information to decide when it is viable to allow the forest to naturally regenerate and when to reforest.
Assisted Migration 2014
This year MBF funded a research project by Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saénz Romero and his students to discover whether there are significant genetic differences among oyamel trees in different altitudes to determine what the best seed and seedling distribution for reforestation programs.
Branches and cones of oyamel populations along different altitudinal zones in an area close to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve were collected and analyzed considering their form and structure. Results indicate that low altitude populations have shorter needles and longer cones than those at high altitudes. Consequently, the research team suggests reforesting in three provisional altitudinal zones using seedlings originated from each zone. If climate change is considered, sites should be reforested in the zone immediately above the zone where the seeds were collected to assist the migration of seeds. The results of his research were published in the Revista Chapingo, the University of Chapingo’s scientific journal and is available here in both English and Spanish. This research will be very useful to MBF and will help us improve our reforestation strategy.
Evaluation of Community-based Resource Management
This year MBF gave a grant to doctoral student Miramanni Mishkin to evaluate the success of community based resource management in the indigenous community of Carpinteros with regards to forest conservation in the Monarch Reserve. Carpinteros has a history of sound forest management and Miramanni wanted to discover what contributes to their efficiency.
Through interviews with the community and using a method called Bayesian Network Analysis she identified several characteristics that are influential for efficient forest management in Carpinteros. Among the most relevant features she found were small community size, well defined boundaries, appropriate leadership, shared norms facilitating social pressure and rule enforcement, fair resources allocation (thus discouraging clandestine use), locally devised and easily enforced access and management rules. The community also relies on low-cost exclusionary technology (fences), which aids in the physical protection of their forest boundaries and helps enforce the general rules of conservation established by the Reserve.
We are very pleased with the results of this research as it will allow us to identify the ideal attributes of communities that are successfully conserving their forest, so we can support and encourage other communities to do the same.
The biosolids experiment set up in 2012 to determine how applying organic fertilizer (Bokashi) affects survival rates of reforested seedlings continues expanding. This year, Dr. Pablo Jaramillo will set aside 10 hectares in one community as an unfertilized control plot and 10 hectares in two communities where he will apply the Bokashi. In his field observations, Dr. Jaramillo has noticed that natural regeneration in specific areas results in less damage to the landscape and improved recovery of the forest. This year his research proposal includes signing agreements with two communities to set up a protection scheme in selected areas that will be left alone to promote natural regeneration of the forest. This will provide an initial baseline for future natural regeneration experiments.
Biosolids Experiments 2012-2013
During the summer 2012 season we set up two experiments to determine the optimal soil conditions for seedlings to thrive. Biosolids (organic byproducts) from dry latrines were obtained from Alternare´s Training Centre and transported to the field site.
One experiment includes biosolids, local soil and locally-produced seedlings, while the other experiment includes biosolids, bokashi (organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled as a fertilizer and soil amendment), local soil and two sources of seedlings (locally and commercially produced). We have collected baseline data on seedling size and also soil samples for further analysis. We expect to collect seedling size data during the month of November after seedlings have endured transplant shock and the rainy season has ended.
The experiments were setup with communities that are ready and agreed to convert their agricultural plots into forest.
Biosolids Experiments 2011
In 2011 we established a research plot to determine the factors that contribute towards reforestation success. In this plot we will evaluate survival rates of seedlings under different soil conditions and compare seedlings from community-managed nurseries versus commercial ones. The plot is being monitored to determine transplant shock and the correlation between the organic amendment and tree survival rates.
We have already found evidence that trees produced in community-managed nurseries are adapted to local environmental conditions and show less transplant shock than their commercially produced counterparts. We will continue collecting data along with survival rates in other reforested sites to compare and establish correlations and be able to determine the importance of soil management and site selection in the reforestation process. Results from this experiment will help us improve our understanding of reforestation dynamics and improve the survival rate of future reforestation projects.
Community members were involved in soil sampling activities and conducted the reforestation activities witnessing what will happen to plants they produced themselves and that will be planted in their land.
Scientific Research, How We Started…
Our efforts in monarch conservation in México started by providing financial support and scientific expertise as part of the advisory group convened by WWF-Mexico to design a new protected area for the butterflies. Advising the Mexican government, the group determined the habitat required for the long-term protection of migratory phenomenon and proposed new reserve boundaries congruent with the needs with the conservation of the overwintering colonies. From 1998 through 2001, we provided $26,000 to WWF-Mexico to support their research on optimal Reserve design.