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Hidden in plain sight: Student tracks paths of lesser-known migrating butterflies

Every fall, visitors flock to the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.

But these aren’t families looking for a sandy spot on the beach; rather, these visitors are butterflies on their annual migration.

The orange and black wings of monarch butterflies get the most attention, and rightfully so: They are famous for their 8-month journey from Mexico to Canada. But many other species migrate through the area, says University of Georgia master’s student Krishna Sharma. He’s now working on a project that, over time, will tell us more about the other butterflies that stop in Georgia on their annual trek.

“You can go to the coast and you can see hundreds of butterflies on a fall day, and the fact that most people don’t really know butterflies migrate besides monarchs was very surprising to me,” says Sharma. “It’s kind of like hiding in plain sight.”

Sharma is working with Butterflies of the Atlantic Flyway Alliance to understand more about the butterflies’ movements: Where do they stop, what attracts them and what plants’ nectar do they eat while they’re on Georgia’s coast. Data collected up and down the coast by citizen scientists associated with the organization offer insights into monarch movements, Sharma says, but lesser-known varieties still remain a mystery.

But, he adds, we know they are there.

In addition to monarchs, migrating butterflies include gulf fritillaries, cloudless sulphurs, American/painted ladies, common buckeyes and long-tailed skippers.

“Monarchs have the longest journey; in the fall migration, they go all the way from Canada to Mexico,” Sharma says. “The other ones usually have shorter migrations, maybe from Florida to Virginia. Since monarchs are what everyone talks about and have the most spectacular migration, that’s the one that has the most literature on it.”

As part of the project, Sharma will first be developing new surveys that will allow information to be collected consistently across Georgia’s coastline. Then, this fall, he’ll head to the barrier islands to collect data on what’s stopping where.

What’s exciting about the new surveys, he adds, is that they will allow information to be collected on butterfly species as well as the type of wildflowers they’re attracted to. This is important because while milkweed is touted as the gold standard for feeding butterflies on their journey, Sharma’s initial data points to a variety of plants that feed multiple varieties of butterflies.

This can have an effect on how communities on barrier islands and elsewhere plant for butterflies.

“Different plants bloom at different times in the season, so when you’re trying to restore for butterflies, instead of just doing milkweed or one plant, you might need a suite of plants that bloom at different times to cover that whole migration period,” he says. “Especially with monarchs, everyone seems to care about milkweed, understandably. But on these islands, they use a whole swath of vegetation.”

So far, the research done on migrating butterflies is dominated by monarchs. Sharma says he hopes that, through this work, he’ll be able to spur a conversation about additional species.

The project was one of the reasons he came to UGA, he says. As a biology major at Boston University focused on ecology and conservation, Sharma discovered Warnell professor Elizabeth King after a friend suggested UGA’s Master of Natural Resources degree. King, who has a connection with the Butterflies of the Atlantic Flyway Alliance, suggested the project as part of his master’s studies.

With such a gap in research on migrating butterflies, Sharma says, the project has opened up several new options. For example, a contingent of monarchs that migrate east of the Appalachian Mountains tend to end up in Florida and the Caribbean, essentially ending their migration cycle.

“There’s actually, surprisingly, a lot of unknowns. And if you look at any citizen science data set for monarchs, there’s almost nothing in Georgia,” he says. “So, just for that, it’s generally undocumented. And for the other butterfly species, there’s almost no literature a on them.”

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