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Monarch Butterflies Will Be Protected Under Historic Deal

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Monarch Butterflies Will Be Protected Under Historic Deal
More than 45 transportation and energy companies, as well as dozens of private landowners, have agreed to create or maintain monarch butterfly habitat along "rights-of-way" corridors across the United States. DebraLee Wiseberg / Getty Images

By Liz Kimbrough

The side of the road isn't usually thought of as ideal habitat. But for insects, such as butterflies and their caterpillars, the long expanses of land along roads and utility corridors add up to a considerable amount of home turf.


More than 45 transportation and energy companies, as well as dozens of private landowners, have agreed to create or maintain monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) habitat along "rights-of-way" corridors across the United States.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) have signed a historic agreement that allows participant landholders to dedicate a percentage of their lands to monarch conservation management in exchange for regulatory flexibility on the rest of their enrolled lands.

Populations of both eastern monarchs and western monarchs have declined by more than 80% over the past decade and are nearing a tipping point for migratory collapse. In light of these declines, the USFWS is set to decide in December 2020 if the monarch butterfly will be classified as a federally endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

Land managers and businesses expressed concerns that if they voluntarily created monarch habitat and the monarch was then listed as federally endangered species, the resulting regulations to protect monarchs could complicate their operations or subject them to additional permitting requirements.

"Some companies wanted to wait to see how the listing would play out," Iris Caldwell, a program manager at the Energy Resources Center at UIC, told Mongabay. "But if you are following what's happening with the butterflies you know we really can't wait. We need to be creating habitat on a variety of different landscapes, as much as we can."

This led Caldwell and her colleagues in the Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group (a group of 200 transportation, energy, government, and nonprofit organizations) to ask what kinds of tools existed to eliminate these regulatory uncertainties faced by landowners.

"How can you incentivize a regulated entity or a utility to do this voluntary proactive work," Caldwell asked, "and still give them kind of the flexibility and the certainty that they need and be able to, in fact, invest in that work without kind of a fear of repercussion?"

The group decided to make use of the USFWs Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) and Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). Both are formal, voluntary agreements between participant landowners and the USFWS aimed at conserving and protecting at-risk species.

In the CCAA, the USFWS provides assurance that the landowner participants will not be required to take additional conservation measures on their enrolled lands if the monarch butterfly later becomes listed as an endangered species.

"So they can just kind of go about business as usual. And if they happen to accidentally kill monarchs in that process, they won't be subjected to the under the endangered species laws," Tara Cornelisse, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization who submitted comments on the agreement, told Mongabay. "So, in turn, what they're supposed to do is give a percentage of those enrolled lands over to conservation."

Some of the conservation actions available and recommended to the landholder participants are: adjusting the timing of mowing practices to avoid periods when the monarch larva will be present; moving away from broadcast herbicide spray to targeted herbicide applications; replanting after a construction project on their right-of-way; and using a native seed mix across their system that help promote beneficial plants.

"Some of these organizations manage hundreds of thousands of acres of land and implementing some of these actions across a system of that scale is no small feat," Caldwell said. "I think that kind of learning curve early on and rolling out and implementing some of these conservation measures at scale, may present a challenge for some."

This is why the role of UIC in coordinating efforts among all the partners who are involved will be really important, Caldwell says. UIC will serve as an intermediary between the landowner participants and the USFWS. The participants will be required to monitor certain data and self-report annually to UIC. UIC will follow up on any discrepancies or concerns and will then submit an annual report summarizing all of the overall work and efforts and any findings across the agreement to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

This is the largest and first nationwide CCAA in history, and Caldwell said she's hopeful that the data collected will lead to insights to inform best management and adaptive management practices for the conservation of monarchs.

"The elephant in the room," Cornelisse said, "is if this would preclude the listing of the species [as a federally endangered species]."

Monarchs have a much wider range of habitat and potential habitat than rights-of-way corridors. Up to 75%, of potential monarch habitat is on agricultural lands. Over the past few decades, urban sprawl, pesticide and herbicide‐intensive agriculture, and climate change have contributed to the global declines of insects, including monarchs. An ESA listing would afford the species greater protection across their range.

"The enrolled lands outside the adopted acres [areas managed for conservation] cannot be credited with benefiting monarchs," the Center for Biological Diversity said in written public comments to the USFWS. "It is important that when the Service weighs the value of these lands in other contexts, such as the [Endangered Species Act]‐ listing decision, that not all enrolled lands be considered to be providing habitat for monarchs."

"I think anybody who knows the science behind the monarch's decline, and the extent of it would say, yes, this [agreement] could provide some benefits, but it cannot preclude the listing of the species," Cornelisse said.

The USFWS anticipates that between 2 million and 26 million acres (809,000 to 10.5 million hectares) of land may be enrolled in the CCAA and CCA agreements, but the percentage of the enrolled land that will be managed for conservation is still to be determined.

"What is striking to me is so often we just don't think of these [rights-of-way] as conservation landscapes," Caldwell said. "Oftentimes, we don't think of them at all. We're just driving past thousands of miles of roadsides and utility corridors. And so, the whole idea of being able to maximize these landscapes to create habitat for species that really need it, I think, is really exciting."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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