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Monarch Conservation Spotlight: M3 Monarch Migration Study

Aug 12, 2020


  • Monarch Conservation Spotlight
Monarch Conservation Spotlight: M3 Monarch Migration Study


One thing that makes the iconic monarch butterfly an extraordinary insect is that their migration and population span a large geographical area. They touch the lives of people across North America and beyond. To support their lifecycle they require different habitats, resources, and conservation practices across this expansive range. This creates opportunities for you and others to be a piece of this conservation puzzle and focus on improving a mixture of habitats for this imperiled insect.


To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) and all of the diverse and critical work that goes into conserving pollinators, the Monarch Joint Venture Communications Working Group and NAPPC Monarch Task Force are launching a new “Monarch Conservation Spotlight” series. The series will highlight some of the impactful projects, programs and organizations working hard to address the declining trend across North American monarch populations. It will bring you information and resources about how you can get involved. Join us to learn more.


This month we interviewed André Green II (University of Michigan, Assistant Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), Inhee Lee (University of Pittsburgh, Assistant Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering), David Blaauw (University of Michigan, Professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), Hun-Seok Kim (University of Michigan, Assistant Professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science).




How did the M3 Monarch Migration Study get started? 

Our team has researched millimeter-scale computing systems for more than 10 years and developed the world’s smallest computer. We were looking for a new way this tiny computer could solve a significant problem and contribute to our society. In November 2017, we learned about Monarch Butterfly Flight Challenge (MBFC) in search of a new method to track the Monarchs’ migration. We believed our miniaturized ultra-light weight system could be a perfect solution for this challenge although there were still remaining pieces to be developed. Thus, our team began to participate in MBFC to provide a useful tool to understand Monarchs’ migration and help biologists find a solution to prevent the sharp decline in the population of Monarch butterflies. 


Monarchs face many challenges. which part of the conservation puzzle does your effort address?   

Monarchs spend much of their time out of our sight. This tracking project lets us “see” monarchs when we can’t actually see them. We want to learn how monarchs use different habitats, locations, and landscapes as they make their migration. What habitats do they find most important? What is common/different about the paths that they use? Once we answer these questions, we can take a much more targeted and dynamic approach to our conservation strategies. 


Where is the majority of your work taking place? 

We are mainly located at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. This is where our team is developing miniature sensing technology and locating algorithm. We also have a team improving sensing techniques at the University of Pittsburgh. We also have about 100 volunteers all over the country to collect data for the locating algorithm.  


Who does your project/organization aim to work with?  

 In the early phases of the project, we have been working extensively with citizen scientist volunteers (over 100 so far). Once development has progressed, we hope to develop a curriculum based on using multi-modal sensors and processing the data in diverse educational settings. We are currently recruiting more volunteers for the 2020 season! If you’d like to participate, take a look at our website. We have been conducting this project with the support of the Monarch Butterfly Fund Flight Challenge, the National Geographic Society, and the University of Michigan Mcubed grant. 


What do you hope to accomplish through this project? 

We want to determine the daily flight paths of individual monarch butterflies for the first time. We anticipate that the developed platform will be able to be used to study other threatened insects and pollinators, including bees. 


What successes have you achieved so far? 

So far, we have developed a tiny sensor that records light intensity and temperature with wireless communication data connectivity up to 150 meters. It can sustain several months of operation by solar energy. The sensor is tiny: the main component is 2x2x4mm and weighs 40mg, about 1/25 the weight of a dollar bill. We have attached the sensor to monarchs and confirmed that they can fly without any noticeable problems. Also, we developed a machine that translates light intensity and temperature data to longitude and latitude to track the monarch’s migration path when the sensor data are wirelessly retrieved at the overwintering sites. 


What has been your biggest challenge? 

To prevent disturbing a monarch’s flight, our sensor must be extremely small and light. Since a typical battery is too large and heavy, we use a tiny millimeter-scale thin-film battery. Its limited energy capacity forces our system to consume, on average, one millionth of the power of a cell phone, which is very challenging considering its necessary functions. Due to these very stringent weight and energy constraints, a conventional GPS technology can’t track the monarch’s migration path. Instead, we are trying to develop a new continental-scale localization and tracking technique based on light intensity, temperature, and pressure measurement data. With this proposed approach, localization error can be great due to weather and local terrain. This is another challenge we are trying to overcome. 


What makes your project/organization unique in the monarch conservation field? 

The tracking technology that we are creating will be the first of its kind. This project has been a collaboration of many different types of expertise, from biologists, engineers, ecologists, and citizen scientists. 


What are some of your favorite references for monarch or habitat-related questions? 

Journey North and our volunteers, among others, have been incredible resources for our work. We have made use of some of the sighting data from Journey North to help develop our tracking algorithm. 


How do you connect with the community to educate them on the importance of the work you’re doing? 

Members of the team have been able to give public lectures and go into classrooms to talk about monarchs and how we’re trying to better understand them in order to help protect them. We have received very nice feedback in the form of paintings and video projects from volunteers who have incorporated our project into their classrooms. 


What is something about the monarch conservation field of work that you wish more people knew? 

Monarch conservation efforts are leading to the development of incredible new tools and technologies that will be used not only for conservation, but also in a variety of other ways, such as use in fundamental biological research or for informing land management practices. This is an important reason why the attention given to monarchs is not only for the preservation of a distinctive biological phenomenon but also for the benefit of species and problems far beyond monarchs. 


Where can readers find out more about your project/organization and potential opportunities to get involved? 

You can learn more about our project on our website. Also, you can join our project as a volunteer by collecting data using commercial centimeter-scale sensors. The data from volunteers has been used to improve our localization algorithm that translates the recorded light intensity, temperature, and pressure data to longitude and latitude. Volunteers also hear about how we use their data to advance our technique. 


What is the best way to get in touch with your organization if someone has a question or would like to help?  

Please contact André Green II ( for any general or biological questions. He can also connect you to other team members, or you can contact them directly as well. You can find other team member information here.


What the M3 Monarch Migration Study is doing through their efforts is just one example of how the work we do for monarchs can make a difference in many ways. While no single group, organization, or individual can address all of the habitat needs of monarchs alone, through collaborative conservation across sectors, borders, and land use types, we can and will make a difference for monarchs and their extraordinary migration. Keep following our “Monarch Spotlight” series to hear more stories of what organizations and individuals are doing across North America to help this imperiled butterfly and the other wildlife that benefit from their conservation, and how you may be able to get involved.


Do you know of a great project or organization that is addressing critical monarch conservation topics? Let us know!


Article contributed by Gail Morris, Southwest Monarch Study, for the Monarch Joint Venture Communications Working Group and NAPPC Monarch Taskforce. The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Header photo and article photos provided by the M3 Migration Study Team.