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New citizen science project enlists Canadians to track milkweed

By Johanna Weidner,
Waterloo Region Record,
October 11 2017

WATERLOO – Tracking milkweed, a plant that’s essential in the life cycle of the endangered monarch butterfly, is a big job and Wilfrid Laurier University researchers are enlisting people across Canada to help.

“This is not something that any one group of scientists on their own can do. We need eyes everywhere to do an inventory of milkweed,” said Robert McLeman, associate professor in Laurier’s department of geography and environmental studies.

“At this time of year, they’re pretty easy to spot.”

MilkweedWatch, an online platform to track the presence of milkweed throughout Canada, was launched this week by a team of researchers at Laurier and the University of Ottawa. People can easily enter their observations of milkweed plants on the mobile friendly website milkweedwatch.ca.

“With a few clicks, your observation is recorded,” McLeman said.

The aim of MilkweedWatch – developed with support from Environment and Climate Change Canada and the nonprofit organization Ontario Nature – is to raise awareness about the critical role of milkweed plants as a habitat for monarchs and other pollinators, and to help gather data for Canadian scientists studying the relationship between milkweed and monarch population health.

“Not everybody realizes just how important a species milkweed is,” McLeman said.

Monarch butterfly numbers have plummeted in recent decades, he said, and a key factor is the decline of milkweed due to the use of herbicides in agriculture and changing land use.

“Milkweed has been disappearing to the margins of the countryside,” McLeman said.

Monarch butterflies look for milkweed to lay their eggs; they lay a single egg on a single plant.

Then the caterpillar eats the milkweed leaves, absorbing the plant’s toxins to discourage predators from eating them.

Knowing more about where milkweed grows can also help farmers protect stands of the important plant. Herbicides used to control weeds also kill off milkweed.

“That’s not just here in Canada. It’s right across North America,” McLeman said.

MilkweedWatch is the fifth citizen science program launched under the NatureWatch project, operated by Laurier and Ottawa universities in association with the David Suzuki Foundation and Nature Canada.

It joins FrogWatch, PlantWatch, IceWatch and WormWatch. McLeman also led RinkWatch, a citizen science project tracking the skating conditions of more than 1,400 Canadian outdoor rinks and ponds.

jweidner@therecord.com , Twitter: @WeidnerRecord