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Nature & You: Scientists use cutting-edge technology to track the movement of insects

Scientists can track Monarch butterfly migration paths using tiny transmitters. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]
Scientists can track Monarch butterfly migration paths using tiny transmitters. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]

Tracing the travels of tiny creatures

Welcome to the world of George Jetson.

That once-popular TV cartoon series featured flying cars and robotic maids.

As incredible as it might first appear, today's wildlife researchers have a Space Age toolbox at their disposal. Let me share with you a couple of examples.

The monarch butterfly is a good "for instance." The migratory habits of this ephemeral creature have long puzzled scientists. How do they get from here to there? What migration routes do they choose? Their Canada-to-Mexico migration is fascinating in and of itself, but researchers have been trying to figure out the exact pathways that are used by these small creatures.

Advances in electronics and Earth-orbiting satellites have enabled today's scientists to outfit the migrating butterflies with miniaturized telemetry transmitters. Who would have thought these electronic devices could be made so small and so lightweight that they could be placed on butterflies and not alter their ability to fly? George Jetson might have seen this coming, but, as for me, it was quite a shock.

Secondly, let's focus our attention on the world of ants. Inquisitive people have been at odds to come up with answers regarding the comings and goings of these miniscule bugs. Some recent scientific research has made use of a substance called Lycopodium powder. It is a natural substance produced by plants. When this powder is placed on a flat surface, the teensy-tiny footprints of the ants are left as evidence of their travelways. Who would have thought such a thing was possible? (... except, of course, that George Jetson fellow.)

I am kind of at a loss as to what the future might hold in store for us. Then again, if you can imagine it, such pie-in-the-sky technology might just be around the corner of what is, and is not, within the realm of possibility.

Check back with me in another 50 years, or so.

— Neil Garrison, NewsOK Contributor

Neil Garrison was the longtime naturalist at a central Oklahoma nature center.

Neil Garrison

Neil Garrison is an outdoor nature enthusiast. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University/Stillwater; he earned a B.S. degree in Wildlife Ecology. Prior to his 2009 retirement, he was the Naturalist at a central Oklahoma nature center for 30... Read more ›

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