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Alumni Review – Winter 2014

Field Notes

Williams cites ­reasons for fewer flutters

In the bug world, the big, black and orange monarch has been a superstar — the official insect or butterfly of seven states, a staple of elementary school ­science lessons and a familiar symbol of summer throughout much of the United States. But that’s changing.

Ernest Williams, the William R. Kenan Professor of Biology, has studied the monarch for eight years and says last summer’s population was the sparsest he’s seen. Gardeners and lovers of the outdoors have noted the same. Journalists noticed, too. In October, an opinion piece in The New York Times featured Williams addressing the decline, which he calls an “endangered biological phenomenon” of the monarch’s migration from eastern North America to its winter habitat in central Mexico.

Monarchs have been dwindling in numbers for years, but a short-term blow — bad weather this spring — contributed to what Williams describes as a “collapse” of the population. He didn’t spot a single monarch until October, past the point when the butterflies typically take wing on their journey to mountain forests in Mexico to spend the winter. The trip varies depending on a monarch’s summer habitat, but some have been known to fly 2,000 miles over six weeks to reach safe haven. These creatures, which weigh only as much as a paperclip, can travel 50 miles a day, and radar suggests they can fly several thousand feet up.

Although small numbers of nonmigrating monarchs are found in South Florida, Guatemala and parts of Central America, the larger population, the migrating monarchs, has plummeted since 1996. Williams ­estimates monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains have dropped in number from roughly 600 ­million to fewer than 100 million.

Williams cites three long-term factors for the decline. One is degradation of the monarch’s winter habitat: logging is thinning the forests in Mexico. Second, monarchs breed only on the milkweed plant, considered by most farmers to be a nuisance. Williams says with the development of herbicide-resistant crops, farmers are using more herbicides to wipe out plants such as milkweed. It’s working.

“The goal is to increase food production, and that all makes sense, but the side effect is all this herbicide usage is killing the other plants, including milkweed that grows on road edges, farm field edges and so forth,” he says.

Finally, there’s climate change, which has resulted in drought in Texas and southern states, reducing the nectar that sustains monarchs. Climate change also has led to more severe storms, and monarchs have frozen even in their forests in Mexico. On top of that, this spring’s cold weather slowed the migration northward and reduced the monarch’s summer breeding.

Williams, who serves on the board of the Monarch Butterfly Fund, an organization that supports reforestation and other conservation initiatives, suggests there are ways to help the monarchs. People can plant milkweed and local governments can let it grow in certain spaces rather than mowing it down. Corporations that develop the herbicide-resistant crops could launch mitigation efforts. And Mexico is working to control logging of the monarch’s winter habitat.

Still, ­Williams expects that the migrating monarch population will continue to shrink. ­Perhaps, with climate change, milkweed will begin to grow farther north, above Canada’s southern tier, and migration will shift. “But I think we will never again see the abundance of monarchs that was seen 20 or 30 years ago,” Williams says.


Grant to expand Digital Humanities Initiative

Hamilton’s Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), a program that integrates new media and computing technologies into research, teaching and curriculum development, has received a second $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The first came in 2010.

The funds will allow DHi to pursue new initiatives, such as a model where ­liberal arts colleges can collaborate on new digital scholarship infrastructures with an interdisciplinary focus. An “innovation lab” will serve as an umbrella under which faculty and students can pursue research and curricular ideas, and a proposed studio will focus on gaming and interactive media as tools to help students and scholars explore such topics as simulation and virtualization, social justice issues, and narrative and creative expression.

One such project already under way is the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA). Developed by Professor of English and Creative Writing Doran Larson, the archive holds digitized essays by prisoners and prison workers. “As the first national repository of witness to the conditions inside the largest prison system on earth, the APWA grew out of the overflow of essays submitted for a book,” Larson says. “The DHi turned a storage problem into an opportunity that has already gained enthusiastic endorsement from top researchers in the field of prison studies.”