Researchers are using the world's largest butterfly collection to learn about and help protect these fragile insects
Welcome to From Florida, a podcast that showcases the student success, teaching excellence and groundbreaking research taking place at the University of Florida.
The migratory Monarch butterfly is under threat. It's been placed on the endangered species list by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which is the world's leading authority on the status of biological diversity. In this episode, Jaret Daniels, curator at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History, discusses UF’s focus on butterfly conservation and research. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams, Emma Richards and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.
Nicci Brown: They're a source of delight to many of us, but the migratory Monarch butterfly is under threat. It's been placed on the endangered species list by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which is the world's leading authority on the status of biological diversity.
While the Western population is at greatest risk of extinction, the Eastern population, which makes a stopover in Florida while migrating from Mexico to the upper U.S. and Canada, also has shrunk significantly. And this is not the only butterfly struggling for survival.
We're going to talk today about UF's focus on butterfly conservation and research. Our guest is Jaret Daniels, associate chair for the Department of Natural History and curator at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Jaret Daniels: Thank you for having me.
Nicci Brown: Why butterflies? Where did your interest in these creatures come from?
Jaret Daniels: Well, I was lucky. I grew up in rural Wisconsin and my parents had a large yard. As most kids, I loved insects and I knew I really wanted to go into a career helping the environment. At that time, insect conservation was still an emerging field and butterflies, the charismatic microfauna out there for conservation, so it was a great opportunity to catapult conservation work through the eyes of insects.
Nicci Brown: Can you tell us about the butterfly rainforest in the McGuire Center at the Florida Museum of Natural History? I understand that we have the largest collections-based research and education center in the world that is focused on butterflies and moths.
Jaret Daniels: That is correct, yeah. We're the largest global research center and we have one of the largest global collections of lepidoptera butterflies and moths. We also have a very large public space that has exhibit galleries and our centerpiece exhibit is the butterfly rainforest, which is a completely immersive, living tropical forest filled with free-flying butterflies, birds. There's fish in the water, turtles, over 400 different varieties of plants. It's unlike almost any other exhibit that you'll find out there.
Nicci Brown: Around how many butterflies do we have in the rainforest?
Jaret Daniels: It vacillates, but on any given day, about 800 to 1,000 free-flying butterflies. They come to us from all around the world and that diversity changes regularly. One nice thing about that exhibit, if you come in August and you come back in October, it's going to be different.
Nicci Brown: It's truly a living exhibit.
Jaret Daniels: It is.
Nicci Brown: What about the center's collection, how many butterflies and species of butterflies can we find there?
Jaret Daniels: Well, we have a little north of 12 million specimens and rapidly growing. We're one of the largest global collections and arguably the fastest-growing global collection. We don't aspire to be the largest. We want to be the most well utilized as a research facility.
Nicci Brown: And what do you mean by that? Do you mean other researchers coming in or do you also mean people who are just general public members coming in and taking a look?
Jaret Daniels: Well, hopefully a little bit of both. We certainly aim at a global research community to use our collections and the associated data, but as you probably know, the Florida Museum is the national leader for the digitization of biological collections. Those data will eventually be available online for anybody to utilize, the general public included, educators, researchers. At some point no longer will you need to travel to Gainesville to visit the collection. You can download all those data available online and researchers can ask really big questions about global change or other impacts to the environment using our data combined with data around the world.
Nicci Brown: Could you tell us a little bit more about what that actually entails? How do you create this digitization of the collection?
Jaret Daniels: Essentially, it's much like what you might assume. It's the detailed images of each specimen, the upper side and underside, and then the translation or the data that is associated with that specimen would be also available to a global research audience. You could download the image data and the associated written data from that specimen, which would give you everything from who collected it, where was it collected, even the GPS points, to the color of the organism, if you were looking at variation. It's a huge wealth of potential data out there.
Nicci Brown: How many butterfly species do we have in our state and in North America as a whole?
Jaret Daniels: Well, Florida's a great state for butterfly watching and butterfly gardening. We have about 190 species of butterflies, most of any state east of the Mississippi. That number does vacillate because we're so close to the Caribbean and we have strays coming in occasionally as well. Then in the U.S. and Canada, about 800 species. So, a lot of butterflies to enjoy. At any given point in Florida, you could reliably encounter about 65 different species. Again, a great state for enjoying these wonderful organisms.
Nicci Brown: Absolutely. What about worldwide?
Jaret Daniels: Worldwide? A little less than 20,000 species of butterflies.
Nicci Brown: What's the most common butterfly in Florida?
Jaret Daniels: That's a really difficult question, because it really depends on where you are in Florida, where you live. If you're in North Florida, you're going to get species that are more similar to the Carolinas. If you're in Miami and the Florida Keys, you're going to get butterflies that are often more associated with the Caribbean.
But if you're in South Florida, some really common species would be the cloudless sulphur, which is the large yellow migratory sulphur. If you're in North Florida or Central Florida, you might get the Gulf fritillary, which is an orange butterfly. It looks very similar to the monarch. It also is migratory. The common buckeye is this beautiful little brown butterfly with target shaped eyes spots. It really depends, but there are a lot of really common butterflies that adapt well to urban environments that people can see every day just looking out of their window.
Nicci Brown: Is the monarch population in Florida different from other monarch populations?
Jaret Daniels: It's a little different. We have in Southeast Florida, the only non-migratory population of monarchs in the U.S. and North America. Then we have migratory monarchs that come through Florida each fall on their way to Mexico, but increasingly we have monarchs that breed throughout the winter along the Gulf Coast and in Florida, primarily because of climate warming under global climate change, and also the use of tropical milkweed, which is a commonly available commercial milkweed but a non-native to Florida. It doesn't die back during the winter. It remains green and vegetative. When monarch butterflies that are migrating encounter that plant, they can actually fall out of migration and breed.
This may sound wonderful for a home garden, but if you're in Tallahassee in January, you're going to have a freeze or frost event and your plants are going to get frozen back and your butterfly caterpillars are going to die, so it's not good biologically for the butterfly.
Nicci Brown: Speaking of changes in our climate, what about these high-intensity storms? Do they have an effect on our butterflies?
Jaret Daniels: They do. A lot of species that may live in South Florida or the Florida Keys, on very low-lying islands or on coastal environments, the intensity of these storms could literally wipe some of these populations off the face of the Earth for really rare species. A lot of the butterflies that we work with are in South Florida and often occur an island populations.The increasing intensity and frequency of cyclones is a big concern as is sea level rise.
Nicci Brown: You look at these creatures and they seem so delicate. It's quite amazing to think that they are flying the kinds of distances or traveling the kinds of distances that they do travel. Can you give us a sense of what the longest migratory path is?
Jaret Daniels: Within North America, monarchs can travel up to 3,000 miles, which is an amazing feat for a small insect. It's hard to imagine even a bird flying that. That's a long distance from Southern Canada down to the mountains of Central Mexico. It's a perilous journey, obviously for an insect, but millions of them make it every year, so this is not unusual.
Nicci Brown: How long does it take?
Jaret Daniels: It takes several weeks. They can fly several hundred miles a day and often, depending on how storm systems move or high level wind moves, they take advantage of a lot of that and can glide long distances as well. But they need to feed a lot on that journey. Think of them like a little hummingbird that is flying around your yard. It's expending a lot of energy, so they need to refuel on their journey. Having available abundantly blooming plants along their journey is sort of their pit stops, their gas stations if you will, to refuel.
Nicci Brown: How long does a butterfly live?
Jaret Daniels: On average, most butterflies, about two to three weeks. They're very short lived, which is surprising to a lot of people and essentially adult butterflies are the reproductive stage. Their goal is to mate and as lay as many eggs as they can before they die or are eaten or just pass away.
Nicci Brown: In some cases, these butterflies might start the journey, but they don't reach the end of the journey.
Jaret Daniels: It's different with migratory species like the monarch. During the summer months, they breed and butterflies may only live a few weeks, but in late summer and fall, they get cues from the environment like decreasing day length and decreasing temperatures and that triggers a physiological response in the butterfly that changes their pathways from egg production and reproduction to building up fat body like a hibernating organism. So, that's their fuel for making that long distance migratory journey. They are not reproductive when they're migrating and, as a result, those individuals can live for several months as an adult butterfly.
Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little bit more about the plants that butterflies like?
Jaret Daniels: Yeah, so most butterflies as adults feed on flower and nectar and they tend to be generalists. They'll feed on whatever they can get nectar from. It's a great way to start in your home landscape planting an abundance of flowering, colorful plants. Then once the butterflies that you see regularly in your yard, then you can do a little bit more research and identify what plants their caterpillars need and then source those plants and include those plants in your landscape. That way your garden has the resources for the adult butterfly and the resources for the developing caterpillars, so you support the entire life cycle of a butterfly.
Nicci Brown: Do they see colors in the same way we do or do they see them more intensely?
Jaret Daniels: They can see more broadly than we can into the ultraviolet. What we know from research that we've done and others have done is, the composition of your yard also matters. Larger clusters of plants or waves of color are more attractive to pollinating insects, butterflies included, and also in many ways more attractive to us. Designing your yard like a landscape architect would, larger colors and don't take the kid in the candy store approach where you buy one of every plant and have the Monet-like polka dot yard. You want swaths of color in your landscape.
Nicci Brown: Do they happen to like one color more than the other or it's more just this having a broad block of color?
Jaret Daniels: That's an interesting question. They are generally attracted to bright colors, pinks, reds, oranges, but there are many butterfly species that like other colors, whites, greens, yellow. I tell people plant what you like, plant a diversity of color, plant a diversity of flower form, because butterflies feed with a proboscis, a feeding tube. Long tubular blossoms are only accessible to some butterflies that have a very long proboscis. The shape of the blossom, the color palette, use your own imagination and pick plants that are diverse and that you like as well.
Nicci Brown: Are there other things that we can do in our gardens or elsewhere to help butterflies?
Jaret Daniels: I think reduce the use of insecticides. They are insects after all and so they're very sensitive to direct application or drift of insecticides. I think another thing that we can do is get out and enjoy your yard. Look and learn about the butterflies. I tell people, park a lawn chair in front of your garden and just sit and watch and bring your kids out there and get your neighbor excited, because if we can expand this across a community, then we're really cooking with gas. We're really improving the scenario out there. We have to rebuild the habitat that we as humans have altered and destroyed.
Nicci Brown: So, now I'm going to ask the tough question. Do you have a favorite?
Jaret Daniels: That's a really good question. I would probably say one that I've been working on for over 30 years, which is an endangered swallowtail found only in Southeast Florida called Schaus' swallowtail. The reason is, I met my wife during the work on that butterfly, so it's very meaningful to me personally.
Nicci Brown: That's beautiful. I get a sense that it has a tail that references a swallow tail, but can you describe what else it looks like?
Jaret Daniels: Sure. So, it's a brown and yellow butterfly. For those that might know a giant swallowtail that they see flying in the yard, it looks very similar, but this butterfly was the first insect added to the U.S. endangered species list and remains the only swallowtail in the U.S. on the endangered species list. It's found only in Southeast Florida and we've been working on it for many, many years. In 2012, it was down to only four individuals remaining in the wild that were known. Today, through the work of our lab and a lot of other collaborators, it's now above 1,200 individuals in the wild. So, we're making progress.
Nicci Brown: The monarch butterfly of course, has now been classified as an endangered species. How did it become endangered and what does that mean for the future of the species?
Jaret Daniels: The monarch populations across North America have declined in the East about 84% over the last 25, 30 years, and in the West almost 99%. This is something that I think most biologists would never have assumed a very common species could have declined so significantly. Most of that is driven by habitat loss, climate change, the same other main threat to biodiversity globally. The recent listing under the IUCN red list is more of a categorical listing. It draws attention to the plight of the monarch, but doesn't really have legal protection such as under the endangered species list of the U.S. It still is being petitioned for listing under the U.S. endangered species list. It really draws attention. It identifies what can be done to help and also questions that should be asked to help fill in gaps of our understanding about why the butterfly has declined in the first place.
Nicci Brown: What can our listeners do to help conserve the population of monarch butterflies and, for that matter, all butterfly populations?
Jaret Daniels: The nice thing about the monarch is it's a cosmopolitan species. It occurs where humans occur. Most species need resources, host plant material for caterpillars and nectar plants for the adult butterflies to feed on. The monarch embodies what you can do in your own backyard. You can plant host resources and nectar resources, a bounty of colorful flowers and other plants that will act as habitat for that butterfly and also draw on a wide range of other pollinating insects, hummingbirds, other butterfly species. What you do in your own landscape really does matter.
Nicci Brown: And monitoring, I understand there's some kind of monitoring network for butterflies.
Jaret Daniels: There are a number of different monitoring networks across the country. Most are state based and, then of course, larger citizen science projects like iNaturalist that capture broad data. We have a Florida butterfly monitoring network in our home state and we're really looking at tracking common species and how they're doing over time. The monarch is arguably one of the most well studied insects globally and it's monitored in Mexico and overwintering grounds and then, of course, a number of different citizen science projects, including Journey North and Monarch Watch monitor it.
Nicci Brown: How do you contribute to that if you are interested?
Jaret Daniels: Both Journey North and Monarch Watch are very easy. You can go online, sign up and basically it tracks either the adult sightings or the sightings of the immature stages, trying to understand how timing and each year's population's ebb and flow.
Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little bit more about the research that's being done at the moment?
Jaret Daniels: At the McGuire Center, we have a diverse faculty and graduate student body, and literally work on a wide range of things from the evolution of butterflies and building out the tree of life of butterflies and moths, to detailed behavioral work, looking at as, an example, moth/bat interactions at night, the evolutionary arms race of defense and predation, to understanding how to restore butterfly populations, studying the ecology and land management for larger communities to funnel inventories, assessing what species occur in a given area. We have a current inventory going for the DeLuca Preserve, which is the newly acquired land in South Florida that the University of Florida has.
Nicci Brown: With all of the networks of people who are studying butterflies and insects around the world, it sounds like you've got a wealth of data. Are you using artificial intelligence to try to interpret that data and make sense of it all?
Jaret Daniels: Well, I think that's the grand goal with the digitization of bio collections. That data is very appropriate for the use of AI technology to ask deep questions, even to help in transcribe those data into a more usable form. The UF AI initiative is still in early days and we certainly, museum data is very appropriate for that type of technology. So hopefully yes, in the future.
Nicci Brown: What about some of the partnerships that you have with other entities in terms of interpreting data that you're finding?
Jaret Daniels: That's a good question. I don't know if I can speak as well to that, but certainly increasingly using data from community science platforms like iNaturalist that go along with museum data. I think trying to use as much data that's available out there is really, really important because it's the continuum of data, it's specimens that exist in the history of time of the species to understanding where the future is going with species and contemporary data. It's blending all those different data types together.
Nicci Brown: Do you have any particular projects that you're working with or partnerships at the moment?
Jaret Daniels: We work on a lot of conservation projects and one that may be more unusual is people often don't think of roadsides as being valuable conservation spaces, but I think they can be. We have a current project with the Department of Transportation in Florida to both revegetate retention basins along roadways for butterflies and pollinators, including the monarch, to also using drones and machine learning to understand and monitor the populations of native milkweed along roadways. So, trying to be more efficient in data collection instead of having people go out and actually, you know, boots on the ground, collect data, see if we can be more efficient in using technology to collect those data. It’s a really rewarding project.
Nicci Brown: It sounds quite unique as well.
Jaret Daniels: I think so. Hopefully it'll be a good model, and we've already had interest from other departments of transportation across the country and even utility providers because they're interested in looking at monitoring habitat or material, plant material like milkweed, for the monarch in utility easements. I think we can learn a lot from this exploratory type of research. I'm not an AI scientist, but it's really fun and it's just a blast learning new things.
Nicci Brown: Now, this is something quite ingenious. You came up with the idea to create a new craft beer and use the proceeds to help conservation of the monarch butterfly. Can you tell us a little bit more about the story behind all of that?
Jaret Daniels: Sure. We've been working with First Magnitude Brewing in Gainesville for the last three and a half years and we launched a line of specialty butterfly beers several years ago. We didn't know if it was going to be anything worthwhile, but-
Nicci Brown: To be clear, there's no butterflies used in the production of the beer!
Jaret Daniels: No, there are no butterflies used in production of the beer, but it resonated really well with the consumers and so we launched a larger collaboration with First Magnitude where we do two butterfly beers each year. Each beer, we try to make it a little more special by adding components of, say, host plants or floral resources into the beer. In one butterfly, we actually swabbed the butterfly and use the yeast from the butterfly in the brewing process. So as close as we can come to getting the butterfly in the beer and then we also try to get bigger and better with every iteration.
This current iteration is a beer called Reign, as restore the reign of the monarch. It's a national release and we’re trying to get other breweries signed up. If they download the recipe off our website and they brew the beer, we're asking for a percentage of proceeds to come back to the University of Florida, then go on to a partner of ours, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, to rebuild monarch habitat across the US.
Nicci Brown: What kind of response have you had thus far?
Jaret Daniels: It's been unfortunately a little lukewarm at the moment. I think it's still a novel idea and we're still coming out of the pandemic and some economic challenges for craft breweries, but we're going to keep trying this. I think that's a good model. We're just going to have to keep trying.
Nicci Brown: Keep pushing on it. Why should people care about butterflies?
Jaret Daniels: That's a great question. I think there's a number of reasons. One is that they are aesthetically beautiful organisms. They mean different things to different people and we preserve and conserve what we love. Butterflies are a very fond organism. They're also very ecologically important. They pollinate plants. They're food for a lot of other organisms. If you like migratory birds or birds in your yard, a majority of the diet when they're feeding their young are caterpillars. They're intricately tied to other organisms and the health of the environment. I think they just meet people in different ways.
Nicci Brown: Jaret, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure.
Jaret Daniels: Thank you for having me.
Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams. Our technical producer is James Sullivan and our editorial assistant is Emma Richards. I hope you'll tune in next week.