- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - There are no butterflies in Savannah Country Day’s butterfly garden this cool December morning. But that doesn’t deter monarch butterfly researcher Dara Satterfield, who has found wintering monarchs nearby.

“We are seeing monarchs breeding year-round at Wormsloe and at The Landings,” said Satterfield, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia.

Satterfield’s ongoing research has pointed to an intriguing connection between a common plant in these gardens - non-native milkweed - and the behavior and health of monarchs in warm coastal areas such as Savannah. The tropical milkweed, which grows year-round, lures the monarchs into sticking around all year, too, instead of migrating to Mexico. But less travel hasn’t proven healthy for the iconic butterflies. Monarch populations that stay put have more trouble with a tiny parasite that weakens some of them and kills others.

“In coastal places like this, where milkweed grows year-round, it usually encourages monarchs to breed during the winter, and they have higher levels of disease because they’re not migrating,” she said. “The migration actually weeds out sick animals. It also gives them a break for part of the year away from contaminated habitat.”

The parasite is a microscopic, single-celled organism called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or Oe for short, that infected females transmit to the milkweed plants where they lay their eggs. When caterpillars emerge, they unwittingly eat the spores. Sometimes they have trouble developing properly. Sometimes they survive to adulthood with the infection, but are still weakened.

Satterfield, who grew up in Atlanta and now lives in Athens, discovered Country Day’s garden on its website and asked to visit. The enthusiastic “yes” from science teacher Bill Eswine led to fourth- and fifth-graders’ involvement in the research. The younger students laid the groundwork, marking with orange flags the gardens’ dozens of milkweed plants. Then, after a brief lesson from Satterfield, fifth-graders examined those plants for eggs and caterpillars.

“Monarch eggs will have fine stripes you can only see close up,” coached Satterfield in the garden.

The kids searched and searched.

They found no evidence of monarchs at all. No eggs. No caterpillars. No adults on the wing.

“It’s pretty good we didn’t find any,” said Mya Felser, 11, who obviously understood the gist of Satterfield’s research.

Instead, a thorough search of all the milkweed plants comes up with only aphids, a favorite food of ladybugs, as the kids learned.

What initially sounds like a scientific bust is really a bonanza for Satterfield, whose work with adviser Sonia Altizer was recently highlighted in the New York Times. The Country Day site is one for her to revisit come spring when its migrant monarchs return. She’ll look at the levels of the parasite in butterflies here and in those at overwintering sites such as Wormsloe and The Landings.

“In spring we can compare disease levels,” Satterfield said. “It’ll work out.”

It’s already worked out for the students, said Eswine, who has taught science at Country Day for more than 40 years but still retains the eagerness of an intern.

“This is huge to be connected with a student who is with the university and is very knowledgeable about one area,” he said. “The thing I love about it is, our kids they think doctor or lawyer, but there are other fields, environmental fields that are really needing their minds, sort of tuned in. What an inspiration she’s been for our students to know they can study butterflies and get grants and travel and be excited about what you’re doing. To see her hand that off to that younger generation is huge to me. It makes it all worthwhile.”

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Information from: Savannah Morning News, https://www.savannahnow.com

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