The University of Lynchburg is one of a few colleges in the country studying milkweed, the monarch butterfly’s main food source, to see if it can grow in various locations along their migration path. The common milkweed plant grows in a vast range from Maine to Minnesota and Virginia. The plant’s population has been on the decline due to encroaching developments and deforestation damage to its natural habitat.
If the plant’s population can be restored, it could positively affect the monarch butterfly population, which has seen an 80% decline since 1990, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Lynchburg’s environmental science professor Jennifer Styrsky found out about the research project at an Ecological Research as Education Network meeting five years ago. She connected with researchers at St. Olaf College and over time, more researchers signed on for the venture.
“There has been a push for people to plant milkweed seeds and restore some of the population. As people are distributing seeds, we are asking with this project, ‘Does it matter where the seeds come from?’ and ‘Can these plants adapt to a local set of conditions?’” Styrsky said.
Funding for the project comes from a three-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. About $250,000 of that money funds the project at Lynchburg, including salary and summer housing for students who assist with the research.
While the Lynchburg project was supposed to start last summer, the pandemic pushed it back a year. Still, students signed up to experience authentic research opportunities.
“It’s been cool to see. We are studying adaptation, which is like how plants from different areas, and of the same species, grow,” McCall said.
Being able to do field research at the University is a valuable experience for undergrads, she added. They are tracking everything the plants do, from plant growth height to defensive traits the plant has against other insects, such as releasing a sticky sap or hair-like structures on the leaves. The monarch butterflies are immune to those defensive traits on the milkweed.
“I love being able to do this at Lynchburg because I love the Claytor Nature Center. It’s gorgeous. Field research is valuable, and it’s hard to get into this as an undergrad. This has been a lot of fun as well,” McCall said.
Styrsky’s husband, biology professor John Styrsky, is also involved in the project and works with the students at Claytor. The research at the nature center is a “common garden” experiment used in ecological research. The team collected seeds from 20 different species of milkweed that sat in cold storage for over a year during the pandemic.
To compensate for the seeds possibly going bad, the team planted as many as possible, which resulted in 1,400 plants at Claytor. John Styrsky said it’s a big, ambitious project that hasn’t been done on this scale before.
“Once you take things out of a controlled environment, take them out of a greenhouse and into a field, anything can happen and it becomes complicated. We’ve had to keep track of everything from when it was a seed to when it went into the ground,” Jennifer Styrsky said.
That’s where the students come in. They are tracking all the data on the plants and learning as they go.
Paul Gehl ’21 graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science but stayed on to help with the project before going on to graduate school.
“I wanted to get more field experience and work with Dr. [John] Styrsky. Plants were not my specialty and I wanted to work with them like their ecotypes, plant adaptations, and things related to milkweed ecology,” he said.
Gehl added participating in field research looks good on a résumé when applying for graduate school, but he also likes working with professors at Lynchburg.
“I love working with faculty and the hands-on experience. You get to pick their brain and work in a smaller group,” Gehl said.
Because it’s not a classroom project, like reading from a textbook. The students are troubleshooting alongside their professors.
“They get the full experience. You have a plan going out there, but it doesn’t always work out. Not only are they learning techniques, but [they’re] also troubleshooting and able to problem-solve on the fly,” John Styrsky said.
After the samples are collected from Lynchburg, they will be sent to a laboratory at Purdue University for leaf chemistry analysis and to Ashland University to study plant genetics.
The milkweed research will continue for two more years at Lynchburg — and maybe more, depending on more grant money or research opportunities.