What Nature’s Coffers Hold

| August 5, 2013

Lincoln Brower (left) and former President Jimmy Carter.

On any given day, Lincoln Brower can recount in vivid detail his more than 50 years investigating the biology of the monarch butterfly. Its extraordinary annual migration across North America to the high mountains of Michoacán, Mexico, is the stuff of dazzling nature documentaries, picture books, conservation forums and, recently, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Flight Behavior.”

A research professor of biology at Sweet Briar since 1997, Brower is Distinguished Service Professor of Zoology, Emeritus at the University of Florida. He first visited the monarch’s winter roost in Mexico in 1977 and has been back more than 50 times — most recently in February 2013, when he spent a day with former President Jimmy Carter. He has authored or coauthored more than 200 scientific papers, eight films and two books, and is currently writing his magnum opus on the species.

The monarch’s story is one that captures the popular imagination, and many widely known facts about them come out of Brower’s research. Conservation has always been part of the narrative because the monarch is so selective in its overwintering and breeding habitats, as well as its food sources. Talking to the media, consulting on books and making documentaries are all part of what Brower does.

Monarch butterflies cluster in high-altitude fir forests in central Mexico.

“I feel keeping it on the front page is really important,” he says.

The monarchs made headlines this spring when an annual census reported their numbers had declined by 59 percent since last year. Brower says it’s a continuation of a decadelong slide in their population. Habitat loss is mostly to blame, he says.

He cites persistent illegal logging in Mexico and the prevalence of genetically modified plants, or GMOs, which are “eliminating milkweed and nectaring habitats on an unprecedented scale where most of the monarchs breed in the Midwestern United States.”

But in a recent interview on National Public Radio’s “Science Friday,” Brower said he is optimistic.

“One of my wonderful reasons to be on this program is to reach people because we need a constituency who are going to stand up for all wildlife,” he said.

He noted that conservation groups such as Monarch Watch and Journey North have tens of thousands of participants, and they encourage mitigation programs to help restore breeding habitat. Moreover, schoolteachers love the butterflies.

“It’s a wonderful educational tool, and it’s such a beautiful thing for anybody to get to Mexico to see it. To me, the monarch is a treasure like a great piece of art. We really need to develop a cultural appreciation of wildlife that’s equivalent to art and music and so forth.”

Jennifer McManamay

Category: Features, Features Summer 2013, Summer 2013