KU to launch Monarch butterflies into space

Students in eastern U.S. to follow KU's butterflies in space

Kansas University students and Monarch Watch research assistants Emily Hrenchir, Paola sophomore, front, and Kate Bendfeldt, Leawood senior, transfer caterpillars to small plastic containers equipped with food that will be placed in larger packages to be shipped to hundreds of classrooms in the eastern half of the country as part of the “Monarchs in Space” program. Three monarchs supplied by Kansas University’s Monarch Watch program are set to be carried into space Nov. 16 aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

The International Space Station is getting some unusual new temporary residents — monarch butterflies from Kansas University’s Monarch Watch program.

Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, said that three butterfly larvae will be sent into space, and would be observed throughout their development.

Students in more than 425 schools across the eastern part of the country will follow along with the experiment, using kits from Monarch Watch to observe their own monarchs, comparing their results with the space experiment.

Cameras will be set up, and results will be shown on a Web site, www.monarchwatch.org/space.

“It’s going to be fun,” Taylor said. “The kids are going to be able to see the full process in their classrooms.”

Monarch Watch Director Chip Taylor displays an example of what a starter kit for raising monarchs can look like. In this example, Taylor uses a plastic container for the housing and two-liter bottle caps to contain food.

Taylor said he doesn’t know how the monarchs will fare in the near-weightless environment, but whatever happens, scientists will learn more about the capabilities of the species.

KU’s Monarch Watch program, which tracks the migration patterns of the butterflies on an annual basis, got involved with the space program after developing an artificial diet that can sustain the animals in space.

Response from schools has been much higher than anticipated, Taylor said. He sent out an e-mail asking for 20 interested participants and received more than 1,000 replies.

The artificial diet — something it took Taylor more than 20 months and more than 90 failed attempts to create — may also have other applications for the program. Already, he said, he’s received offers to participate in projects such as mapping the monarch’s genome.

About 20 to 30 kits — including butterfly larvae, food for the caterpillars and a stick for chrysalis formation — will be available for the public for $15 at Foley Hall today, Taylor said, for others who may want to conduct a similar experiment at their homes.