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Tiny transmitters can track migration of Monarch butterflies

New Hampshire New Leader

A migration tracking system that can track movements of birds, bats and even large insects will soon expand across New England, thanks to a nearly $1 million federal grant.

The grant will be used to establish 50 automated telemetry receiving stations in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. The receivers can track movements of animals tagged with radio transmitters. These nanotags are tiny enough to be placed on monarch butterflies and dragonflies.

The three-year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service competitive state wildlife grant of $998,000 will be matched by $355,500 in private funds. New HampshireFish and Game, the lead agency for the project, will partner with fellow departments in Maine, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, as well as New Hampshire Audubon, among others.

“New Hampshire’s Wildlife Action Plan identifies dozens of migratory birds, bats, and insects as species of greatest conservation need,” Michael Marchand, supervisor of the Nongame & Endangered Wildlife Program, NH Fish and Game Department, said in a news release.

“Conserving these species requires knowledge of how they use and move through New Hampshire’s landscape, as well as across other political boundaries. Information gathered from this new technology, coupled with other ongoing research and conservation efforts, will be important in implementing effective conservation measures for these species.”

The receiver array will be part of the rapidly expanding Motus Wildlife Tracking System (, established in 2013 by Bird Studies Canada. The Motus network includes nearly 900 receiving stations around the world, according to the news release.

The combination of highly miniaturized transmitters — some weighing just 1/200th of an ounce — and a growing global receiver array allows scientists to track migrants previously too small and delicate to tag, the news release states. The technology can document the travels of individual birds, such as a gray-cheeked thrush that made a 46-hour, 2,200-mile non-stop flight from Colombia to Ontario.

“This project is important because never before have we had the technology to see intimate details of an individual species’ migratory pathway in this way,” said Doug Bechtel, president of New Hampshire Audubon.

The grant specifically targets several species of greatest conservation need in New England.

New Hampshire Audubon biologists will use the smallest nanotags to track fall movements of monarch butterflies, which have suffered large population declines. The tracking information will help to identify target areas for habitat improvement, such as planting fall-blooming nectar sources to support migrating monarchs.

According to the news release, researchers from Massachusetts Audubon and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife will use nanotag transmitters to study the migration routes, timing and behavior of American Kestrels, the region’s smallest falcon and a bird that has experienced drastic and largely unexplained declines across New England.

Finally, researchers will also conduct field tests to better understand the detection limits for newly developed transmitters and receivers.

Any nanotagged animal that flies within nine or 10 miles of any of the receivers will be automatically documented. For example, a receiving station installed in Dixville to monitor rusty blackbird activity detected several shorebirds migrating from Churchill, Manitoba, and James Bay, Ontario, to the Atlantic coast in 2019.

“Motus technology and this particularly dense array that will be constructed in New England, especially in conjunction with the expansion in the mid-Atlantic states, will enable conservation organizations, industry leaders and legislative decision-makers to see how habitats are being used on a landscape level and make associated conservation decisions based on near real-time data,” Bechtel said.

Maine Audubon, Massachusetts Audubon, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve, and Willistown Conservation Trust are also part of the project.


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