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Following the Flight of the Monarchs

Following the Flight of the Monarchs

By Rob Mackay

Following the Flight of the Monarchs: An interdisciplinary ecoacoustics project

‘Following the Flight of the Monarchs’ is an interdisciplinary project bringing together artists and scientists, connecting with ecosystems and communities along the migration routes of monarch butterflies as they travel the 3,000 mile journey between Mexico and Canada each year. The project, led by Rob Mackay (Senior Lecturer in Music at Newcastle University), connects with the international BIOM project led by Leah Barclay at the University of the Sunshine Coast (http://www.biospheresoundscapes.org/) and SoundCamp (http://soundtent.org/) to map the changing soundscapes of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves through art, science and technology. 

Streamboxes are being installed in 5 locations along the monarch butterfly migration routes between Canada and Mexico. These will livestream the soundscapes of these different ecosystems 24/7 via the Locus Sonus Soundmap (http://locusonus.org/soundmap/051/). The first of the boxes was successfully installed in the Cerro Pelón UNESCO monarch butterfly reserve in Mexico in 2018, and another streambox was installed at Point Pelee National Park in Canada in 2019. Further streamboxes are due for installation in Virginia, Texas, and Northern California. A collaboration is also underway with Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biosphere Preserve in Southern California. The streams are being used for ecosystem monitoring as well as integrating into artworks which are raising awareness of the issues the monarchs highlight, whose numbers have declined by nearly 90% over the past two decades due to industrial use of herbicides, deforestation, and climate change. 

So far, there have been a number of creative outputs, including an immersive audiovisual installation which toured internationally, including the Eden Project and the New York Electroacoustic Music Festival. More recently an audiovisual telematic performance piece has been developed connecting performers in Mexico, USA, Canada and the UK in real-time with soundscapes streamed from ecosystems across the monarchs’ migration routes. 

Rob created a 30 minute radio programme about the project for BBC Radio 3’s Between the Ears series, which was broadcast in January 2021. It was Pick of the Day in the Radio Times. It is still available to listen to online, combining interviews with monarch specialists in Canada, USA and Mexico, alongside binaural field recordings (including the rushing sound of millions of monarch butterfly wings), and musical performances recorded in the reserves. 

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Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences