The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is a collective term for scientific searches for intelligent extraterrestrial life, for example, monitoring electromagnetic radiation for signs of transmissions from civilizations on other planets.
Scientific investigation began shortly after the advent of radio in the early 1900s, and focused international efforts have been going on since the 1980s. In 2015, Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced a well-funded effort called Breakthrough Listen.
As a child of the 1960s, I vividly recall fields of Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) feasting on the milkweed growing on my great-grandparents farm in West Virginia. Every year, they would come back, mate, lay their eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves, hatch into caterpillars, cocoon themselves and then pop out as amazing butterflies. Once in their butterfly form, they would fly north until they reached their summer destination somewhere in Canada to repeat the process for their winter trip to Mexico – then start the whole process over again.
Never once, as a child, did I ever think that these creatures would become extinct in my lifetime.
Well, that is happening now.
A case in point; Pismo Beach, California.
The butterflies I grew up with in West Virginia, on the East Coast of North America, had a migration route from Canada to Mexico. The United States was just a rest stop. This is true for most of the Monarch butterflies EAST of the Rocky Mountains. For the most part, the Monarchs to the WEST of the Rockies migrate from Canada to coastal Southern California. There they winter over in eucalyptus and cypress trees in the moist sea air along the rocky California coast.
Well, that is what they did do. At the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, the Monarch population has been shattered. On December 14th of 2020, I visited this locally praised park, expecting to see an amazing colony of Monarchs, huddled together for warmth in the gently swaying leaves of the trees.
As recently as 1990, park officials counted 230,000 Monarch butterflies nestled in the Pismo grove. On my trip I counted 15… not 15 THOUSAND, just just 15. Fifteen. 15.0 Monarch butterflies. That should sent off alarm bells the world over, but it didn’t. Town officials loved using the butterfly grove as a tourist attraction to generate income for their tax base, but they are not taking the necessary steps to save the species.
The delicate grove has a very busy road and train track on one side, a RV campground on another side and a trailer park on the other. The city did plant some Monarch-friendly plants – they are sandwiched in-between the busy road and a pair of leaking Port-A-Johns. Seriously.
The grove has not been expanded, nor has any protections been added. There is no buffer area between the grove and the local overcrowded population. The only money the town seems to have spent for the grove has been for travel brochures and other marketing materials. “Come See The Butterflies” the headlines read. “Before They Are Gone” has been conveniently left out.
To help inform about what the Monarchs are up against, let’s talk about the biological cycle of the Monarchs for a bit.
When the Monarch leaves its winter grove (either Coastal California or Mexico), they fly north to a source of milkweed that their ancestors visited. Once their, they will feed, mate, lay eggs on the milkweed and die. The eggs hatch, the caterpillars gorge on the milkweed, build a cocoon, metamorphose into a Monarch, eat more milkweed and then they navigate their way further north to another ancestral breeding area and repeat the process until they reach their final destination in Canada. The Monarchs that leave Pismo Beach never see the final destination, only their ancestors do. Not one single butterfly makes the complete round trip.
There is an odd caveat to that.
Once the Monarchs reach their final summer destination, they again mate, lay eggs as usual, but these butterflies go through a process of diapause. They are larger, more hearty and able to store more energy. These super Monarchs make the whole trip to their overwinter locations without the egg laying repetition we see on the migration northward.
This migration from south to north to back south has been repeated for probably around 175 MILLION years. And we are watching the species ground to an unfortunate halt.
During that 175 million year period, the Monarchs had a more or less static environment to live, grow and thrive in North America. Even with the occasional glaciation on the continent, they survived. Now they are not.
There are innumerable obstacles in the way for the survival of Monarchs. These threats are real and no one, no government is wiling to do what it takes to rescue the species.
First off there is the huge factor of climate change. As the planet warms, the delicate synchronous biological cycle the Monarch depends on has been disrupted. When the biological clock tells the Monarch to leave its southern home, it flies north and the milkweed in the north may not be at the same maturity level the plants had before climate change. The milkweed’s cycle of sprout, grow, bloom and seed is now such that these fields the Monarchs depend on no longer matches the Monarchs arrival time. So many times the Monarch arrives in a field its ancestors visited no longer has milkweed at full maturity, the plants could be too juvenile or wilting, putting extinction pressures on the species.
Another factor is habitat loss. Some of the fields of milkweed have been plowed under for the sake of urban development, mining, logging, or industrial farming. As humans move in, the life cycles for all species are disrupted and sometimes they are disrupted to the point that it invites extinction.
Another type of habitat loss is related to climate change. As the weather becomes hotter, soil moisture goes down. This invites abnormal levels of wildfires. As the wildfires sweep the land, it consumes wildlife habitat. In 2020, the west coast of North America was hit very hard. 4.2 million acres of land was burned in California alone.
The last major factor that is fueling the extinction of the Monarch is pollution. Above and beyond the toxins in the air that are continually pumped into the atmosphere are the insane amount of pesticides and herbicides used in modern industrial farming.
One evolutionary trick the Monarch uses for survival against predators is the aforementioned milkweed. For most animals, milkweed is poisonous if not deadly. The milkweed contains a chemical called cardenolide glycoside. Cardenolide glycoside is a chemical that does not effect Monarchs. And since they need milkweed for egg laying and for food, they are full of cardenolide glycoside. Animals have learned to stay away from this colorful species of nymphalidae thus allowing the Monarch to fly great distances with little predator interaction.
Farmers hate milkweed and spend enormous amounts of resources to rid their farms of it. They don’t want their livestock poisoned nor do they want their crops competing with milkweed for water or nutrients. The herbicides kill off the milkweed and the pesticides kill off all the insects, including the helpful species such as Monarchs.
So why do we have all this fuss over a simple butterfly? Is it just because they are pretty? No. The answer is a big, huge no.
Humans are tied at the hip and our existence hangs mercilessly between two tiny species. One is plankton. Half of the world’s oxygen comes from oceanic plankton. Without them humans suffocate. The other are species of pollinators. Without insects that pollenate plants like vegetables, grains and fruit, we die of starvation. Moths and butterflies are prolific pollinators. Behind species of bees, Monarch butterflies are among the SECOND largest insect group of pollinators.
We are all witnesses to extinction. As we watch the extinction of the Monarch butterflies, with shrugging slouched shoulders, we are also witnessing the extinction of ourselves.
I was born in 1963 and grew up on large doses of Apollo. Anything and everything that revolved around NASA, I consumed it with a hunger only a geek could produce. During the 70s my family lived in West Virginia and we would take these trips to various places in the state; Blackwater Falls, Dolly Sods, Pipestem – just about anyplace where we could hike, do a bit of fishing and pitch a tent.
On one such trip we took a wrong turn and happened upon the Green Bank Radio Observatory. My head exploded. I had no clue such a facility was in my home state.
There was a tour offered so we stopped in and took a short bus tour of the facility – the guide pointing out the frolicking deer, the softball field and the radio dishes as we went.
The last stop on the tour was in a little meeting room where we watched a short film and heard a presentation. The presenter, with a very distinctive voice, introduced a brand new film titled “The Power Of 10.” After the film, he gave us a short introduction to a program called SETI. If my young kid brain wasn’t blown by then it was blown now. I had never even considered that other civilizations could be using radio. At that period in my life I was an avid ham radio nerd and knew it was possible to pick up on interstellar signals. Only in ham radio, we called such signals “noise.” Whoever that guy was on the last stop of the tour gave me a lot to ponder.
A couple years later a new TV show about space titled “Cosmos” was announced and I was thrilled! Like the geek that I was, I actually had a notebook so I could take notes as the show went along. As the narration started I instantly knew the voice. Lo’ and behold, here was that same guy from Green Bank now on television telling us how Earth was the shore of the cosmic ocean.
So, I met Carl Sagan before he was “Carl Sagan.” I remember at the presentation he was enthusiastic and actually engaged with the tourists. Even then, his passion for teaching was memorable.
I really lucked out. I know this was not his day job. I am sure he was just at the observatory and couldn’t pass up a chance to give a new group of people a new insight to the stars.