Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category
In Arizona and the surrounding Southwestern United States, over 400 people are participating in a nine-year ongoing game of tag. But these folks are not tagging each other. They’re actually romping about in meadows with small nets, hoping to catch and tag a Monarch butterfly.
In 2003 Chris Kline began the Southwest Monarch Study in order to track the migration pattern of the Monarchs that appear in Arizona. Much was known about the migration of Monarchs down the eastern coast to Mexico, but this was not enough. Kline rallied Arizona locals to achieve mass data collection across the state, uncovering information about the unique Monarch population.
Gail Morris is the current project leader of the Southwest Monarch Study and she radiates a passion for Monarchs. She sees beauty beyond the surface of their iridescent wings. Gail says that “it’s their incredibly long migration that gets me most excited.” She explains how wildly adaptable they are, as they use adverse weather conditions to their advantage. These little, thin winged creatures use Arizona’s annual monsoon to take flight thousands of feet into the air and fly fifty to one hundred miles a day. They can use columns of warm rising air called ‘thermals’ for travel. Once, after a day of meadow-romping, Gail was chatting with a friend by their cars: “This monarch shot up from a tree at angle like a plane ascending.” They marveled as it it joined a cast of hawks in a thermal and disappeared into the sky.
So where are these butterflies going when they catch a ride in the wind? According to the Southwest Monarch study, it depends. Arizona Monarchs have a unique travel agenda, and it even varies from day to day. Monarchs comfortably take the wind as it blows, following it to specific overwintering locations in either California or Mexico depending on how the wind presents itself on the day they take flight. These locations can be as specific as a single tree, flocked to year after year. Some Monarchs even stay in Arizona through the winter, merely migrating to lower altitudes.
All of this raw data was gathered by the locals, and analyzed by professional scientists. “The local people often see the movement but it had never been published,” Gail says. A while back Gail was searching for Monarchs with a group of citizen scientists in Northern Arizona. “These bird watchers heard we were looking for orange butterflies and they said ‘Stop at the fishery, you’ll find them there’”. This did not align with Gail’s previous knowledge about Monarch habitats, but she hesitantly followed her own mantra: the locals know best. When the group arrived at the fishery they were surrounded by walnut trees and these trees were showered in Monarchs. Gail was struck yet again by the Monarch’s adaptability to variable habitats.
Lisa Rensch also finds her free time best spent chasing butterflies. She’s a prominent citizen scientist with the study, as she has been tagging with her daughter since 2013. Her daughter, only one year old when they began, learned to delicately handle the butterflies. Lisa is a true nature lover, completely losing track of time as she tracks the Monarchs. While tagging she has run into goldfinches and even “a nest of deer mice,” she says. “It was lined with thistle down, the babies all snuggled cozy inside.” She never knows what she’ll find while searching for Monarchs.
Currently the Southwest Monarch study is expanding. Groups in California, Utah, and Colorado are now tagging. As science often goes, the findings of the Southwest Monarch study have led not only to answers, but to further questions about these resilient creatures.
Ultimately, the study hopes to further encourage conservation. Families and public areas are already inspired by the project, filling in the missing link to Monarch survival: rich sources of nectar for the butterflies to feed on. Southwest Monarch Study is teaming up with the city of Mesa, Tanto National forest, the Nature Conservatory, and the Bureau of Land Management, where each organization is adding milkweed to their property as a nectar source to support feeding of the Monarchs. Milkweed is a rich nectar source for other pollinators as well, so other animals will benefit a side effect.
If you are wowed by these little troopers and live in the Southwestern United States, check out the Southwest Monarch Study. Find caterpillars, tag butterflies, plant milkweed and watch your garden come alive. If you are elsewhere, keep learning about these fascinating creatures by checking out this video, or learning about the findings from the study. Knowledge breads conservation; discovering how cool science is breads passion.
Love pollinators and want to do more? Check out our newsletter featuring other interesting pollinator citizen science projects that you can participate in!
Autoimmune Citizen Science is an app to help people with autoimmune diseases track their symptoms, lab tests, and treatments in order to see what’s working and what isn’t. Individual data is aggregated in order to see what’s working for the community as a whole. Check out the project on SciStarter and sign up for the beta testing phase of the app.
by Vivek Mandan
Despite the estimated 50 million Americans with at least one or more autoimmune diseases, public awareness is practically nonexistent. How could this be? 50 million individuals out of a national population of 320 million is almost 16%. With almost one-sixth of the nation suffering, autoimmune disease is present at epidemic proportions – yet, medical treatment remains limited and research scarce and disorganized. How did this happen silently and unnoticed when we have the most advanced medical knowledge in the history of the world?
Autoimmunity and Medical Specialization
The medical system is segmented into specialties. If someone has a hormonal issue, they go to an endocrinologist; kidneys, a nephrologist; digestion, a gastroenterologist. There are immense benefits to specialization – with a system as complex as the human body, it is impossible to make any progress without systematic specialization.
However, autoimmune diseases were only recognized as a class of disease around 60 years ago in 1957, long after the creation of medical specialties. Since autoimmune diseases tend to affect multiple biological systems and have a shared etiology, dividing autoimmune diseases by the primary physiological location in which the worst symptoms manifest is both inefficient and inaccurate with regards to treatment and research.
This mismatch between specialized providers and multifaceted diseases becomes clearer as we examine the numbers surrounding research and treatment. Currently, autoimmune disease related healthcare expenses come to over $100 billion per year, while cancer costs come to $57 billion. However, research funding for autoimmune diseases are a paltry $850 million, compared to the $5.4 billion for cancer. Why is the funding for cancer over 6 times that of autoimmune diseases, while the healthcare expense of autoimmune diseases is nearly double that of cancer?
Cancers have been grouped together as a class of disease when it comes to research and treatment. While individual treatments vary, investigating the common factors between various cancers has led to tremendous progress in understanding the mechanisms behind them. It’s time to do the same for autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune disease research is fragmented – Hashimoto’s is researched as a thyroid disease, psoriasis as a skin disorder, rheumatoid arthritis as a joint disease. In order to understand autoimmune diseases, the first step is to group them together.
Lab tests and the patient experience
The other major challenge in autoimmune disease research is the lack of comprehensive patient information. People with autoimmune diseases tend to have many symptoms that aren’t alleviated by standard medical treatment. As a result, many individuals start doing research on their own to see if diet, lifestyle changes, supplements, and more can make a positive impact on their quality of life.
The disconnect occurs because researchers and healthcare providers are unable to effectively access a scientific, well organized form of individual information. There is currently no lab test or combination of tests that can account for the myriad symptoms and treatments that patients experience throughout their time outside of the doctor’s office. The problem is somewhat cyclical – research is stifled by inefficient organization of disease information and patients can’t centralize their information without new research technology that addresses the entirety of their condition. How can we make progress?
Like a Pedometer for the 21st Century
With the AICS app, patients will be able to track everything they’re trying and study how it affects their symptoms and lab tests in detail. While they focus on tracking their daily progress, we’ll be aggregating the data across everyone who uses the app (anonymously and privately) giving them immediate access to real statistics based on real data. This app helps citizen scientists manage their autoimmune diseases right away, while applying the data they provide to make progress for the entire autoimmune community.
Citizen science can play a key role in finding cures to autoimmune diseases. Through seeing what people with autoimmune diseases are going through and trying on a daily basis, we take the first step toward understanding how to solve the mystery behind these illnesses. The AICS app is currently under development and our first beta release happened on May 22nd. Want to be a beta user? Sign up here. We hope to see you join us as a citizen scientist today.
Vivek Mandan is a software engineer by trade and helped design the Autoimmune Citizen Science app. He was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease at the age of 12. He understands what people with chronic illnesses go through on a daily basis and strongly believes in the power of tracking software and big data to help people with chronic illnesses on their journey to health.