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Nat Geo/Waitt Grant 100: Why don’t butterflies cross the road?

The National Geographic Society teamed up with the Waitt Family Foundation to help qualified and experienced individuals launch the most difficult stage of a project for which to secure funding—the search. Special emphasis is placed on expedited grant processing and turnaround. Applicants are able to receive funding within weeks.

Since its inception the NGS/Waitt Grants Program has funded 100 projects, ranging from the search for Genghis Khan’s tomb to an African bat conservation project. Nat Geo News Watch invited Program Officer Fabio Esteban Amador to write about the 100th grant and the ethos of the NGS/Waitt program. A link to details of how to apply for an NGS/Waitt grant is at the bottom of this page.

By Fabio Esteban Amador

Do butterflies follow a particular path in their flight or is their movement through space completely arbitrary? Can we affect their behavior and protect them from extinction by modifying the landscape?

Understanding these complex issues is the focus of  Victoria Bennett’s research. Bennett, a postdoctoral research associate at  Oregon State University, affilitated to PNW Research Station (USDA Forest Service), and a new NGS/Waitt grantee, believes that the conservation of species fundamentally depends on how they move across the landscape.

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The 100th NGS-Waitt grant focuses on barriers that inhibit the Taylor’s checkerspot (Euphydryas editha taylori). 

Photo courtesy of Victoria Bennett/PNW Research Station (USDA Forest Service)

Bennett hypothesizes that isolated and rare species are sensitive to fine-scale features in a habitat and that they perceive these natural and artificial features as barriers which alter how species move across space.

“Buildings, roads, mountains, and rivers are constantly inhibiting species behavior. However, it is the fine-scale features such as grass, gravel, trees and fences that are perceived by these rare species as barriers and limit the ability of motion,” she said.  

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Bennett studies these particularities across a community of local species, including the rare Taylor checkerspot butterfly. She believes that identifying habitat features and specific characteristics that wildlife perceive as barriers to movement may be the key to devising appropriate habitat management and species conservation.

Bennett  will use her NGS/Waitt grant to conduct intricate surveys in the Willamette Valley in Oregon summer 2010 and spring 2011 to explore through targeted field design the extent to which habitat features such as roads, woodland edges,  and tall grass act as barriers limiting the ability of the adult butterflies within a local community to move across the landscape.

Butterflies tracked with radar guns 

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Although Bennett’s work will focus on the Taylor checkerspot, her novel use of harmonic radar technology hopes to significantly benefit fine-scale movement studies in the future. This technique of attaching harmonic transponders  to a select number of butterflies allows the use of radar guns to identify, locate and follow individuals.

The tiny transponders look like a flake of dust and don’t cause any physical harm to the specimens.

Bennett’s ultimate goal is to inform management practices that will increase habitat connectivity, alleviate the implications of potential barriers and encourage stable populations of butterfly species of concern, such as Taylor’s checkerspot.

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Bennett is the 100th grantee since the NGS/Waitt Grants program’s inception in 2008 at National Geographic. The program was created by Ted Waitt from the Waitt Foundation and National Geographic Society to help qualified individuals launch the initial stage of a project and to award grants for exploratory fieldwork with the potential for breakthroughs.

Ted Waitt established the Waitt Foundation in 1993 to reflect his family’s heartfelt commitment to give back to the community by “helping good people do great things” through research and education.

Led by NGS/Waitt grantee John Pollack, a small group of volunteer archaeologists and divers associated with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) worked with the Yukon government to locate and document century-old stern-wheeler wrecks dating back to the Klondike Gold Rush. (Ghost Ship of the Yukon Project.)

National Geographic video

The NGS/Waitt Grants Program is unique in that it fills a gap often left by other granting agencies that don’t fund high risk proposals.

Valley-of-the-Khans-Project.jpg“Great ideas require great risks. The NGS/Waitt Grants Program embraces this by giving to projects when they needed most,  on the onset,” said NGS/Waitt grantee and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Albert Lin in a recent interview. (Click the button on the right to learn more about Lin’s project.)

Having a fast turn-around period, between 8 and 12 weeks, is sometimes critical for researchers trying to save a species, record a once in a lifetime opportunity, document the world and it’s species, or assess the state of health of the planet.

The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program featured in the video above was supported by the NGS/Wait Grants Program.

National Geographic video

The ever-growing community of NGS/Waitt grantee-researchers specialize in various disciplines, including the biological and anthropological sciences, paleontology, nautical archaeology, ecology, geology, oceanography, and historical archaeology. Grants are also distributed around the globe and are having an impact in the development of scientific research in South, Central and North America, the Caribbean, Africa and Madagascar, Oceania, Asia, and Europe. 

NGS/Waitt grantees in the news

Although the program is relatively young, the NGS/Waitt researchers have already made news. Searching for Genghis Khan’s tomb in Mongolia, to the first critter cam recording of tree kangaroos in the wild, uncovering clues of the First Americans, mapping the longest underwater cave system in the world, and documenting the final moments in the life of a river boat in the Yukon, are among many studies being noticed.

 Victoria Bennett’s butterfly research embodies the goals of the program: It is exploratory, uses new technological tools to address complex questions, and makes a novel approach to testing ideas about behavior, interaction and conservation.

The NGS/Waitt Grants Program is providing Bennett and other scientists the opportunity to get into the field with relatively short notice and field-test technologies and ideas in the cultural and natural realms. There is no other program quite like it.

The future of science 

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While proposals are submitted by an array of investigators, the program is largely contributing to the development of emerging scholars and paving the way for the future of science.

“We’ve given 100 grants now to some amazing people doing incredibly important work, and the best part is we’re just getting started,” Ted Waitt said.

The program has also seen a big increase in applications and is gaining momentum, strength and recognition in various academic and professional research communities.

The future of the NGS/Waitt Grants Program is to continue providing grants for exploratory science, and cutting edge research in a timely manner. We also hope to continue promoting the program to increase fundamental support in various underrepresented disciplines.

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Fabio Esteban Amador is the program officer for the NGS/Waitt Grants Program at National Geographic and an associate research professor of anthropology at George Washington University. He is an archaeologist specializing in Mesoamerican cultures and Pre-Columbian and historic earthen architectural conservation. Amador studied archaeology at Rutgers University and advance degrees at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He has worked in prehistoric sites in North, Central and South America and is presently conducting research in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Before joining National Geographic, he was a professor of archaeology  and a researcher for the Council for Scientific Investigation at the National University of El Salvador.

Read Fabian Esteban Amador’s blog posts

Additional information

Do you have what it takes to receive an NGS/Waitt grant? Find out how to apply.