Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.


RARE: The end of the monarch reign?

When you think of endangered animals, what are the first species that come to mind? You likely imagine mighty rhinos, herds of elephants or maybe a bale of sea turtles. Often when we consider conservation, we picture exotic fauna located thousands of miles away. But what about those threatened species living in our own backyards? 


A monarch butterfly from the Sam Noble Museum entomology collection 

The monarch butterfly is a native species in Oklahoma and surrounding states. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it is also a near threatened species–but private collecting, museums and science field trips are not to blame. The biggest influence on the decline of monarchs is the loss of milkweed– a plant that monarch caterpillars feed upon as they grow. This is due to significant land development. Without milkweed, monarchs cannot complete their life cycle as they morph from a caterpillar into a butterfly.

Every winter, monarch butterflies migrate hundreds of miles. This migration, known as overwintering, is one of nature’s most intriguing phenomena. Monarchs use a magnetic understanding of Earth’s poles to guide them south to escape the cold northern winter. Millions of monarchs migrate from the northern U.S. plains and Canada to a few locations in either Mexico or California, and these butterflies return to the same sites each year. It takes several generations to complete a single migration, and in 1997, it was estimated that 1,200,000 butterflies landed per migration site!  

“They have a very strong geographic preference, and it’s not exactly known why,” explained Andy Boring, recent invertebrates collection manager. “During the overwintering period, you may have hundreds on one tree and none on a tree twenty feet away.”

In 1997, those million-plus monarchs settled at multiple locations covering nearly a mile each. Now a mere 200,000 monarchs are overwintering on less than 1/100 of a square mile per site. That’s barely larger than six neighborhood homes. Over the past two decades, the monarch population has experienced a 90 percent drop from roughly one billion individuals to just 33 million.


Graph via www.xerces.com

Scientists like Boring track and monitor the populations of monarchs and other invertebrates, studying characteristics, habitats and breeding habits. In turn, they use this information to develop local and global conservation strategies. Occasionally, they even offer counsel on land management decisions that could impact threatened species.

 “I think this sort of action-driven research should become more common,” Boring said. “I think that it’s a local service that most people overlook.”

 But there is something you can do, too. By planting milkweed and other nectar-producing plants in your home garden, you can help foster a successful monarch migration. Milkweed typically blooms in Oklahoma during the month of May, as butterflies migrate through the sooner state throughout spring and summer. Milkweed seeds are inexpensive and can be purchased online or seasonally at your local gardening store.


Butterfly gardens like the one at the museum help foster monarch migration

“If enough people planted milkweed in their gardens, it could make a substantial difference,” Boring said. “The key is to help this species complete their life cycle.”


A full-grown monarch. Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Mares

 To help foster a monarch-friendly habitat, you can also refrain from using herbicides that may damage milkweed and other plants. You may also help track populations as a citizen scientist or support existing conservation efforts. To learn more about local conservation, be sure to visit our newest exhibit RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species–opening Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014.

Racing to End Stereotypes

If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Big Bang Theory, then you know that scientists aren’t usually known for their athleticism. Brains? Yes. Brawn? Not so much. But at the Sam Noble Museum, we’re all about busting stereotypes. Take Katrina Menard, for example. 

Menard is the invertebrate curator (a.k.a. bug chick) at the museum. She is also a competitive athlete and finalist in this year’s World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton, Canada. On Monday, Menard will face off against cyclists, swimmers and racers from across the globe for a two-hour demonstration of human strength. 

The ITU bike route 

So, what does an Olympic-distance triathlon look like? A 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run. All in all, that’s about two hours of non-stop adrenaline. To prepare, Menard spent anywhere from 7 to 11 hours in training per week during the winter. How does she find the time? 

“For ExplorOlogy, I had to take my bike with me to Black Mesa,” Menard answered. “I always have to take my running shoes to the field! I work for a place that is really constructive about my races, and that’s wonderful.”


Menard has trained in the field in countries like Africa and Australia

 Menard joined the triathlon scene three years ago after picking up cycling around Norman. Despite running track in college, Menard didn’t run her first triathlon until 2011. After her first race, the Red Man Spring Triathlon, she was hooked.

Menard means business on the track

But the transition from athlete to scientist hasn’t always been so smooth. In high school, Menard struggled with bridging the gap between jock and science-lover. Thanks to her supporting parents, Menard realized that having two passions was a blessing—not a curse.

 “You can be athletic and scientific,” Menard explained. “You can be successful at both, and it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a girl.” 

The women’s triathlon sport is gaining ground in Norman as the University of Oklahoma works to establish a team. Menard hopes to get even more involved in racing in the future as more women enter the sport. But for Menard, it’s not about soaking in the spotlight or becoming an inspiration. It’s for the love of the sport.


Menard and her fellow triathletes 

“You should race because you’re passionate about it,” Menard said. “I never did it to inspire other people. I did it because I cared, because I enjoyed the sport.”

 For updates about Menard’s upcoming race, keep an eye on the ITU website. Good luck, Katrina!

Bigger Fish to Fry

Picture yourself knee-deep in the warm water of Mountain Fork River in southeast Oklahoma. The spring sun shines down on your face as golden light glistens on the river’s glassy surface. Suddenly, the water breaks. The speckled body of a brown trout springs into the air, hungrily snatching your handcrafted fly along the way. As he dives back into the river, you know you’ve got him. Hook, line and hackle.


A brown trout and fly-fishing rod

 Thrilling, right? 

It’s easy to see why fly-fishing is one of America’s greatest pastimes, but there’s much more to this sport than meets the eye. In fact, many popular fish species can spot a fraud before ever leaving the water. According to Texas A&M entomology graduate and wetland ecologist Andy Boswell, trout use their excellent vision to identify key body parts before taking the bait.


Boswell and his father hit the water for a little fly-fishing 

“Sometimes, making sure the presence or absence of some very specific body features can make all the difference in the big one looking at your fly and turning away, or gobbling it right up,” Boswell said. 

So, what’s a fly fisher to do? 

“Knowing small but important details about insect life cycles, their general body design and where they occur is immensely helpful when trying to target specific fish,” Boswell said.


Boswell teaches anglers to fashion the perfect lure

Essentially, successful fly fishers must first become successful entomologists – and that’s where Boswell comes in. As a lifelong fly fisherman and entomology expert, he brings both skill and science to the table. For this reason, Boswell will be conducting beginner, intermediate and advanced fly-fishing workshops at the Sam Noble Museum on Saturday, April 5.

What can you expect to learn?

 With the help of the Sam Noble Museum’s recent invertebrate curator, Katrina Menard, the workshop will teach fly fishers how to craft their own flies that match regional ecosystems. Plus, Boswell will cover the basics of fly-fishing for beginners while assisting expert anglers in honing advanced techniques.


A handcrafted fly

 Whether you’re stepping in the water for the first or thousandth time, we invite you to drop in and drop a line with us. The Fly-Tying Frenzy adult workshop costs $30 for museum members and $40 for non-members. So what are you waiting for? Space is limited, and April is just around the corner! To register, just click here. Remember, the deadline for this workshop is March 28.

 You have bigger fish to fry – get hooked on entomology.