Using ID tags is a great way for scientists to monitor the movements of the animals they study ... but what if those animals are as tiny and delicate as insects? Scientists at Ohio zoo and conservation centre The Wilds have solved this problem with special butterfly-sized stickers! 

The sticker tags are so small, they don't affect the insects' ability to fly. Image: The Wilds

In an attempt to restore pollinator populations in their 10,000-acre reserve, the team is hand raising, tagging and releasing threatened monarch butterflies using special ID tags designed by butterfly conservation organisation Monarch Watch

"Many people don’t think of insects when they think of [threatened] species," says The Wilds' Restoration Ecology Program Coordinator Rachael Glover. "But last year, monarch numbers were at their lowest since recording began in the 1970s."

As you can imagine, 'stickering' a butterfly is delicate work. The tiny tags have to be picked up and applied using a dissection needle – and only a trained, gloved hand can be used to hold the butterfly in the correct position for tagging. 

"Because they are small and fragile, it is hard to hold them without damaging their wings," says Glover. " ... and if you don’t get the sticker on right, you risk damaging the wings with the sticker [itself]." Though it's tricky business, the team also records important data like the sex of the animal and whether it was infected with parasites at the time of release. 

A tagged monarch joins a roost en route to its winter home Image:RNX592/Flickr

Unlike many other insects, monarch butterflies can't survive the cold temperatures that envelop upper North America during the winter months. To avoid imminent 'death by Jack Frost', Monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains travel to small groves of trees along the California coast to roost. Those east of the Rockies (like the ones at The Wilds) will fly even farther to forests in the mountains of Mexico. It's a mind-boggling undertaking ... but thanks to the ever-growing human population, these frequent-fliers have more to worry about than their long journeys.

Urban development and deforestation are the main culprits behind the butterflies' decline, explains Glover. As the winter roosting trees are removed from the wild, monarchs must travel farther between resting points. Urban sprawl has also affected the availability of milkweed, the only plant that monarch larvae feed on. 

These animals are at risk because of human activities, but the good news is that anyone can help restore monarch populations to their original glory. "Anyone can create habitat for monarchs in their own backyard that will create waystations for them all along the migratory route," she says, adding that gardens with a variety of pesticide-free nectar resources for adults, and milkweed for larvae, are ideal for butterfly bliss. You can also help the programme by reporting any tagged animals that cross your path using the Monarch Watch database

"By just submitting the data, Monarch Watch can have a record of monarch numbers for the year, [and with that] a better understanding of migratory routes," she says. "Citizen science is important to monarch conservation! Rearing and tagging these butterflies to track their numbers is important if we are to understand how to save them from extinction." 

Top header image: Martin LaBar/Flickr