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Tiny sensor will track monarchs on their long migratory journey

Experts at the University of Pittsburgh are developing a system to track the migrations of monarch butterflies. Each fall, millions of monarchs migrate to a specific region of mountains in central Mexico. The researchers plan to investigate how the butterflies navigate, and how climate change may alter the path that they take. 

Professor Inhee Lee is part of a team that has created a tiny sensor that can be carried by monarch butterflies along their journey. The sensor will transmit data throughout the three-month migration. 

“Tracking animal migration is a critical ecosystem indicator,” said Professor Lee. “Migrators travel long distances across entire continents, and it can give us unprecedented insight into their migratory paths, how the environment around them is changing, and how species interactions are impacted by changing movements and distributions.”

The tiny chip is part of a new wireless sensing platform called mSAIL. The sensor, which will be attached to the butterfly’s back, can simultaneously measure light intensity and temperature. Using a machine learning method, the experts will be able to use data from the chip to reconstruct the butterfly’s migration route.

“The proposed system is designed to record and compress light and temperature data during the migration path while harvesting solar energy for energy autonomy, and wirelessly transmit the data at the overwintering site in Mexico, from which the daily location of the butterfly can be estimated using a deep learning-based localization algorithm,” wrote the researchers.

The sensor was tested on a monarch butterfly in a botanical garden. The test revealed that the chip did not impede the monarch’s ability to fly or open and close its wings. 

According to the experts, the next step of the project is to mass produce over 100 mSAIL sensors that can reliably operate over the three-month migration. The researchers plan to tag butterflies at various locations in the United States.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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