Sonia Altizer's interest in butterflies and parasites began when she received a microscope and grow-your-own-butterfly kit at the age of 12. The assistant professor at the University of Georgia Institute of Ecology recently received a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Development Career award to study infectious disease patterns of monarch butterflies.
"The overall goal of the project is to better understand how long-distance migration in animals affects the spread and impact of their infectious diseases," explained Altizer. "Monarch butterflies have very diverse migration patterns, and provide a perfect case study."
Best known for their spectacular North American migration, monarchs inhabit islands and continents worldwide. Those that live in tropical areas such as Hawaii do not migrate, but monarchs found in temperate locales migrate up to thousands of miles per year. Monarch populations that do not migrate suffer from the highest disease prevalence, and Altizer's research will determine reasons for the lower infection rates in migratory butterfly populations.
"Diseases that pose risks for humans, such as avian influenza and West Nile virus, are also carried by migratory animals," said Altizer. "Studying infection patterns in monarch butterflies will help determine the relationships between animal migration and infectious disease transmission, as well as how long parasites can live on their migrating hosts."
The 5-year $679,492 study will determine how components of migration, such as the total migratory distances traveled and energetic costs of the journey, affect transmission within a population. This will be a collaborative effort, with a team of researchers from UGA and other universities involved in recording field observations, conducting experiments and developing mathematical models.
The education and outreach segment of the project will include a citizen science project, MonarchHealth, in which volunteers across North America will collect parasite samples from wild monarchs. In addition, coursework geared towards promoting environmental literacy to non-science majors will be developed at UGA. Altizer encourages undergraduate research in her lab and has many students participate in the collection of data and the communication of results. Members of her lab group also participate in a variety of local education programs.
"Butterflies are a way for people to get up close and personal with nature," said Altizer. "These iconic creatures are not only beautiful, but are also scientifically fascinating."