Renowned monarch expert to speak at Sweet Briar on butterfly’s troubling decline

Sweet Briar College Research Professor of Biology Lincoln Brower predicts that the 2016 fall migration numbers for the monarch butterfly will be the “lowest ever.”

An internationally known expert on monarchs, Brower will speak to the Lynchburg chapter of the American Association of University Women about this trend at 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13, at the College’s Elston Inn and Conference Center. “The Grand Saga of the Monarch Butterfly” is free and open to the public.

Monarch butterflies flutter around Lincoln Brower during a research trip to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. Photo by Linda S. Fink on Cerro Pelon, Michoacan, Mexico, January 2006
Monarch butterflies flutter around Lincoln Brower during a research trip to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. Photo by Jenn Wiley Schmidt ’06 on Cerro Pelon, Michoacan, Mexico, January 2006

Since his first trip to the monarchs’ winter retreat in the high mountains of central Mexico in 1977, Brower has visited the region more than 50 times, most recently in February 2014. In his lecture, he will present a first-person account of his field expeditions and lab explorations, and describe the current conservation issues that threaten the butterflies’ unique migration and wintering biology. Numerous photographs ranging from electron micrographs to satellite images will illustrate his talk.

While a December 2015 report on the endangered butterflies indicated an encouraging uptick in numbers, 2016 brought more bad news, says Brower.

“A huge storm in March did enormous damage to the overwintering area in Mexico, and the government has authorized extensive salvage logging through October, which is very troubling,” he said. “The March storm almost certainly was one of the worst setbacks we have witnessed. I predict this fall migration will be the lowest ever. Reports on the web indicate that numbers are way down in many areas. Our Amherst and Nelson county censuses are way down from normal.”

Brower has been investigating the biology of the monarch butterfly for most of his life. Many widely known facts about monarchs — presented in biology classes and nature documentaries — have come out of his research on the butterflies’ chemical defense against predators and the ecological chemistry of their interactions with their milkweed host plants.

When Brower first traveled to Mexico, he was captivated by the phenomenon of hundreds of millions of butterflies aggregating in the rugged fir forests. He began to explore new questions about the butterflies’ migration and overwintering physiology, sparking multiple expeditions in the following decades.

His initial trip made one fact clear: The monarchs’ migration and overwintering biology were threatened by logging in the winter roost areas. Brower began conservation work with WWF-Mexico, government agencies in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, and numerous colleagues, that continues to the present day.

For more information, visit Lynchburg’s American Association of University Women website.