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In what could be the most touching scientific study ever performed, dozens of men at a maximum-security prison in Washington state helped reveal the migration patterns of West Coast monarch butterflies. The inmates raised and released thousands of these butterflies over several years so that scientists could track their long-mysterious flight: a 500-mile voyage from the Pacific Northwest to California.
David James, who studies insects at Washington State University, had wanted to study the migration patterns of West Coast monarchs for many years. The famous route taken by their East Coast counterparts from New York to Mexico had no known Pacific equivalent since the populations are too small to follow. For every 200 butterflies tagged by a researcher, only one is usually recovered at the end of this journey, according to James, and finding even 200 in the wild to tag was improbable. Knowing the route is essential to conservation efforts, but James had no way to figure it out. That is until he got a phone call from Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
The prison was trying to find new activities to improve the mental health of prisoners serving long-term sentences. So in 2012, he started to work with inmates to raise monarchs through their entire metamorphosis—larva to butterfly—at which point the adult insects were tagged and released from the prison. Over the course of five years, almost 10,000 monarchs flew from the facility. Elsewhere in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, researchers released another few thousand.
Email addresses were written on the tags, and soon after the first butterflies were released, James started getting messages from people who had seen them. The reports confirmed that the butterflies did indeed spend winter in coastal California. Twelve of them landed at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz. Several more headed to Bolinas and Morro Bay. Between 2012 and 2016, residents discovered 60 of the tagged butterflies—12 from Walla Walla—that had flown an average of 492 miles; at least one butterfly travelled for 845 miles.
This project assists researchers in identifying ideal places to plant milkweed and other vegetation that the West Coast monarch population needs to live. And, it also helped some of the inmates. James explained that the prisoners were very worried that they were going to harm the butterflies, even though they were in there for doing a lot worse. Watching the monarch metamorphose also gave the men pause for thought. James recalls some of the inmates telling him that if this butterfly changed maybe they can too.
Now that this mystery has been solved, James is looking to find answers to another one: Where do monarchs from Idaho spend their winters? He is already in touch with an Idaho penitentiary.