Sweet Briar biologist nominated for conservation prize

Sweet Briar research professor of biology Lincoln Brower, one of the world’s foremost experts on the monarch butterfly, is a nominee for the 2016 Indianapolis Prize. Worth $250,000, it is the largest conservation award in the world, according to the Indianapolis Zoo, which administers the prize.

The names of 28 nominees were announced today in a press release at indianapolisprize.org. The zoo created the award to recognize individuals whose work has had a significant impact on a species or group of species.

Monarch butterflies flutter around Lincoln Brower during a research trip to their overwintering grounds in Mexico.
Monarch butterflies flutter around Lincoln Brower during a research trip to their overwintering grounds in Mexico.

The nominees “represent many of the most significant and accomplished wildlife conservationists in the field today,” Michael Crowther, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo, said in the news release.

“They are protecting species and creating successful conservation methods that ensure future generations will live in a flourishing and sustainable world. We applaud their accomplishments and encourage individuals, organizations, companies and governments to join them in advancing animal conservation.”

In addition to the unrestricted $250,000 cash award, the winner receives the Lilly Medal, named for the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation, which provides funding for the prize. Five other finalists also receive awards of $10,000. The six finalists will be announced early next year and later honored at the Indianapolis Prize Gala on Oct. 15, 2016.

Brower has spent nearly 60 years conducting field expeditions and lab explorations in an effort to understand the biology of the monarch butterfly — including its extraordinary annual migration across North America to the high mountains of Michoacan, Mexico. He has authored or coauthored more than 200 scientific papers, eight films, and edited two books, and is currently writing his magnum opus. Educating the public and advocating conservation of the species and its habitat lie at the heart of much of his work.

In recent years, as the numbers of overwintering monarchs in Mexico declined at an alarming and sustained rate, Brower worked relentlessly to raise awareness of the problem and to lobby the governments of the U.S. and Mexico to act. Almost a year ago, Brower and his colleagues petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider protecting the monarch under the Endangered Species Act. In December 2014, the agency agreed to a yearlong review to determine if protection as a threatened or endangered species is warranted.

Brower has been a research professor at Sweet Briar since 1997. He is Distinguished Service Professor of Zoology, Emeritus at the University of Florida, where he spent the latter part of his teaching career after many years at Amherst College. He has a B.A. from Princeton and a Ph.D. from Yale.

He previously received the University of Missouri-St. Louis Harris Center Conservation Action Prize, the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale University, the Medal for Zoology from the Linnean Society of London, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Animal Behavior Society and the Royal Entomological Society of London Marsh Award. He has served as president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the International Society of Chemical Ecology and the Lepidopterists’ Society.

Winning the Indianapolis Prize would be exciting and an honor, but, most importantly, it would be good for the monarch butterfly, Brower said in reaction to his nomination. The December announcement of the federal government’s review of the monarch’s status brought a lot of attention to the species’ plight.

“If I am recognized, it should go a long way to helping that effort,” he said. “That’s the main concern I have at this point, because the migration is in danger.”

All summer long, Brower’s seen four monarchs in his nectar garden in Nelson County, Va., where he monitors their numbers each year.

“Normally, there should be lots of them flying around,” he said, although they don’t peak until late September or early October.

He blames their decline on agricultural practices in the Midwest, such as monoculture and the heavy use of herbicides. These destroy food plants and breeding habitat that the butterflies rely on across their North American migration routes.

“Basically, we’re breaking the ecosystem with this intense agriculture,” Brower said. “This award would make the monarch even more famous. I’m just a small player in the big picture to save the monarch and its habitat in North America. It’s a struggle, but we hope we can win it.”