GMOs not main culprit in monarch butterfly decline | 2/6/2019 | Staff
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To get a better understanding of the monarch butterfly's future, Jack Boyle built a time machine.

Boyle, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow of Environmental Science and Policy at William & Mary, has been using the web to mine millions of century-old botany records to track abundance patterns of milkweed in America. Contrary to claims made by scientists and activists for decades, he's learned that genetically modified crops are not the main culprit for the decline of milkweed, the principal host plant for monarchs.

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"We're attacking, in a very mild way, the received wisdom that the big thing we need to worry about with monarchs is genetically modified crops, that all this spraying of herbicide has devastated the milkweeds," Boyle said. "Of course, we can't rule out that that's been what's happening in the past 20 or so years, but that's only the tail end of milkweed decline. They've been dying off since the middle of the 20th century, long before genetically modified crops."

Boyle is the lead author on a paper detailing his findings, which was recently published in the journal PNAS. His co-authors are Assistant Professor of Biology Josh Puzey and Associate Professor of Biology Harmony Dalgleish.

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Using digitized records from museums and herbaria throughout North America, the researchers were able to track the relative abundance of both monarchs and milkweeds for more than a century, from 1900 to 2016. They found that both monarchs and milkweeds increased during the early 20th century and recent declines are actually part of a much longer trend beginning around 1950.

"Herbicide resistant crops are clearly not the only culprit, and likely not even the primary culprit," the paper states. "Not only did monarch and milkweed declines begin decades before GM crops were introduced, but other variables, particularly a decline in the number of farms, predict common milkweed trends...
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