Pollinator Cities Really Could Save the Monarchs

In this Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015 photo, Tom Merriman stands behind a monarch in his butterfly atrium at his nursery in Vista, Calif. Five years ago, Merriman didn’t sell milkweed at all; this summer, he sold more than 14,000 plants and is shipping truckloads of seedlings all over California and other bone-dry Western states like Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

The number of Bengal tigers is dwindling. Orangutans and some African elephant populations are also at risk. Monarch butterflies are dropping out of the air, and may end up on the endangered list by 2020, too. Blame the encroachment of human footprints and human-driven development for their deaths—indeed, blame humans for much of the deforestation, overfishing, and climate change that are shrinking the variety of the natural world.

But a growing body of research suggests that human-dense cities and flourishing wildlife aren’t incompatible, after all. It’s in urban areas that animals like fishers and coyotes and bullfinches and peregrines are finding new life, and on patches of city terrain that birds and dragons and butterflies are perching as they complete their migratory paths. Partly because they tend to be in coastal and riparian areas with high biodiversity, cities are becoming crucial havens for many animal species as once-open lands are transformed by agriculture and development.

pair of new articles by researchers at the Keller Science Action Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, suggests that cities could actually be integral in “help[ing] curb a potential ‘sixth mass extinction’”—but only if they act quickly, and smartly, to become sites of conservation.

The researchers suggest cities start by focusing on preserving monarch butterflies, whose numbers have fallen precipitously in the last two decades as the milkweed plant—where butterflies must lay their eggs—disappears. Because of their distinctive appearance and popularity, monarchs are the “ideal ambassadors” for the conservation movement, the researchers argue, although they’re part of a larger group of pollinators that include flower beetles, hoverflies, and mosquitoes, too.

“Beetles are incredible pollinators, but a campaign to ‘plant for beetles’ probably wouldn’t go anywhere,” Derby Lewis, a senior conservation ecologist at Chicago’s Field Museum and a co-author of both papers, said in a statement. “By helping Monarch butterflies, we’re helping other pollinators, which are on the decline.” 06-26-19

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