In the end, Kansas University’s adult monarch butterflies died after a week of fluttering about in a small container aboard the International Space Station.
Not bad, says KU’s Chip Taylor, director of the Monarch Watch program, after the last of the butterflies died late Friday night.
“They survived and did remarkably well, considering the disadvantages they were having up there in space,” he said of the insects whose normal adult life span is two to four weeks in the spring and summer.
As hundreds of classrooms followed along back on Earth — all conducting their own control experiments back home — they saw the butterflies overcome several challenges.
In just one example, all three butterflies came out of a chrysalis that was floating in mid-air after it became detached from the sides of the habitat.
Taylor said that throughout the four-week experiment, the question he heard most often was “Why?”
The experiment helped introduce children across the country to the difficulties of life in space, he said, and revealed interesting new information about the monarchs’ gravity dependence.
“It does appear that monarchs have a gravitational sense,” Taylor said. “The question is where is it and how does it work?”
The monarchs struggled to find a center of gravity. For caterpillars that naturally want to move upward, an environment that presented no clear “upward” direction proved confusing, Taylor said. A lack of gravity also contributed to the insects’ struggle to naturally expand their wings, he said.
Taylor said the coordination with schools was mostly successful, and may lead into further cooperation. With a specially-designed artificial diet now proven effective, Taylor said the program may expand into inner-city schools, many of which had problems finding milkweed in the past.
The plant is the only naturally occurring food that monarch caterpillars will eat.
“This definitely is a boost for our program going forward,” Taylor said.
Photos and video of the experiment are still available online at monarchwatch.org/space — a site that will continue to be updated over the next few days with more complete results of the experiment, Taylor said.