KU’s Monarch Watch studying rare white butterflies

When it comes to butterflies, it takes a lot to shock Orley “Chip” Taylor, director of Kansas University’s Monarch Watch on West Campus.

White Monarch butterflies at Monarch Watch at 2021 Constant Ave.

But when Taylor first noticed two white mutants among the monarch butterflies that his students were raising about three month ago, he was taken aback.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 6 or 7 and I’ve never seen a white monarch,” Taylor said. “They are so rare we only hear of one to two reported every other year among the tens of thousands of people who rear butterflies.”

The white monarchs stray from the species’ normal orange appearance, but retain the usual black pattern markings. Taylor said the trait is likely a mutated recessive gene that makes its presence known only when both parents carry the gene.

After noticing the original two butterflies, Taylor said Monarch Watch students bred the rare insects up to the current population of about 40 white monarchs. But don’t expect to find a white monarch out in the wild, Taylor said; the critters are too rare.

Monarch Watch will continue to develop the white monarch population, making the KU researchers one of only two known groups in the world to study the rare butterflies, Taylor said.

As the population grows, Taylor said the phenomenon presents the opportunity for students to conduct original research.

“Rare things allow you to explore a whole series of ideas,” Taylor said. “They provide you opportunities to provide new information to the world.

For example, Taylor said he is helping a student study how the abnormally colored monarchs respond to heat this week in comparison with their orange counterparts.

Taylor said studying the white monarchs should provide some insight into how the mutation occurs and why they differ from average monarchs. Still the best part of having a new population to study is that it sparks engagement among students, Taylor said.

“It’s not really novel science, but it’s fun stuff,” Taylor said. “This is the type of stuff you get students on. It’s a good vehicle for undergraduate research.”