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MilkweedWatch aims to track a plant that monarchs love

By Safina Husein,
The Cord,
October 18 2017

MilkweedWatch is a citizen science project launched to encourage the public to track Milkweed in order to allow researchers to obtain crucial information about the plant.

The online platform, which was launched this past September, is a website where users across Canada can input data and information whenever they identify milkweed. The data ultimately tracks the quantity and locations of milkweed that exists throughout the country.

By collecting data on the whereabouts and quality of milkweed plants present in Canada, researchers can understand how to create and maintain a healthy population of milkweed.

Robert McLeman, associate professor in Laurier’s department of geography and environmental studies, explained that the online platform surfaced as a result of his past work and interest in citizen science.

“Laurier has been doing a lot of different projects on citizen science which is the idea that you get the general public to help researchers collect data about different things,” McLeman said.

MilkweedWatch is simply the latest citizen science initiative amongst McLeman’s various other ongoing projects include FrogWatch, PlantWatch, WormWatch and RinkWatch – which tracks the conditions of outdoor skating rinks and more

MilkweedWatch was brought forth after McLeman was approached by Ontario Nature, an organization dedicated to protecting wild species and wild spaces, who suggested

"McLeman explained that there are two crucial goals behind MilkweedWatch. The first, being to educate and bring an awareness to individuals across Canada on the importance of milkweed."

that researchers could greatly benefit from the collected data on milkweed through the watch.

The decline in milkweed may stem from herbicides being used among agricultural fields. McLeman explained that Ontario Nature is working to reach out to North American farmers to encourage them to allow milkweed to continue to grow on their land.

“Milkweed is what we call a keystone species in ecology, it means that without milkweed you lose other species; an important one being monarch butterflies,” McLeman said.

Monarch butterflies are currently on the endangered species list.

In recent decades, the monarch butterfly population throughout North America has declined and continues to do so. Although this decline comes as a result of numerous issues, the quantity of milkweed is a prevalent concern to the issue.

“The reason is that the female, adult monarch butterfly lays a single egg per milkweed plant. She flies through the meadow and she looks for those plants and she’ll lay an egg on each one, but only one,” McLeman said.

“So if there are very few milkweed plants or none at all, she’s got nowhere to lay her eggs and so then she doesn’t have any caterpillars.”

McLeman explained that there are two crucial goals behind MilkweedWatch. The first, being to educate and bring an awareness to individuals across Canada on the importance of milkweed.

“We want to raise people’s awareness about just how critical milkweed plants are, we need the publics help and sort of doing an inventory of them,” McLeman said.

The second goal is to assist researchers who may find the data collected through MilkweedWatch’s platform useful to their own studies and research.

“For example, there’s Environment Canada scientists who are trying to figure out how much milkweed and what the minimum amount that you need to have a healthy Monarch population[is],” he said.

“We simply don’t know what that amount is so this is where that kind of information can be valuable from a research point of view.”

In order to take part, individuals simply track their sightings of milkweed on milkweedwatch.cawhere they can easily pool the information they acquire.

“When they see milkweed plants they record their observations, it’s very simple – you can do it on your phone and there’s a drop down menu to put all the info in; even a kid can do it,”McLeman said.

As for reaching out to the public to encourage them to track their sightings on MilkweedWatch, McLeman said he wants to encourage Laurier students to take part and note their sightings of milkweed.

“It’s a great time of the year to do it … it’s super easy to spot them right now, and if we could challenge [Laurier students to take part] that would be awesome.”

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