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Migratory Monarchs Provide
Disease Model

by Anisa S. Jemenez



Best known for their spectacular North American migration, monarch butterflies inhabit islands and continents worldwide. Those that live in tropical areas such as Hawaii do not migrate, but monarchs found in temperate locales migrate up to thousands of miles a year. Monarch populations that do not migrate suffer from the highest disease prevalence, and new UGA research will determine reasons for the lower infection rates in migratory butterfly populations.

Sonia Altizer, assistant professor of ecology at the University of Georgia, received a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Development Career award to study infectious disease patterns of monarch butterflies.

“The overall goal of the project is to better understand how long-distance migration in animals affects the spread and impact of their infectious diseases,” explained Altizer. “Monarch butterflies have very diverse migration patterns, and provide a perfect case study.”

Diseases that pose risks for humans, such as avian influenza and West Nile virus, are also carried by migratory animals, according to Altizer. “Studying infection patterns in monarch butterflies will help determine the relationships between animal migration and infectious disease transmission, as well as how long parasites can live on their migrating hosts,” she said.

The five-year study will determine how components of migration, such as the total migratory distances traveled and energy costs of the journey, affect transmission within a population. This will be a collaborative effort, with a team of researchers from UGA and other universities involved in recording field observations, conducting experiments and developing mathematical models.

The education and outreach segment of the project will include a citizen science project, Monarch Health, in which volunteers across North America will collect parasite samples from wild monarchs. The information gathered will help in developing coursework geared to promoting environmental literacy to non- science majors at UGA. Altizer encourages undergraduate research in her lab and many students participate in the collection of data and the communication of results. Members of her lab group also participate in local education programs.

“Butterflies are a way for people to get up close and personal with nature,” said Altizer. “These iconic creatures are not only beautiful, but are also scientifically fascinating.”

For more information on the project, please see or contact Sonia Altizer at


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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