• A student takes clippings of leaves off a milkweed plant
    A University of Lynchburg student conducting milkweed research at Claytor Nature Center

Published Research

Research conducted at the Claytor Nature Center and published by University of Lynchburg faculty and staff can be found on the Digital Showcase.


John and Jennifer Styrsky are working on research on milkweed restoration in collaboration with colleagues at several other institutions, including St. Olav College and Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, Denison University and Ashland University in Ohio, and Purdue University in Indiana.

Their team was awarded a three-year research grant from the National Science Foundation totaling $1.2 million. They set up a one-acre study plot at Claytor Nature Center in 2021, transplanting about 1,400 common milkweed plants grown from seeds that were collected from 20 milkweed populations across the plant’s geographic range. One more field season remains in 2023. So far, their work has resulted in one published paper, six research presentations at regional, national, and international scientific conferences, and over 40 undergraduate student participants gaining experience in the project as field assistants and junior collaborators. Hundreds of other students have interfaced with this research as students in ecology courses at the University of Lynchburg and collaborators’ home institutions.

Monarchs and Milkweed
The monarch butterfly is an iconic species because of its remarkable natural history. The eastern North American population of monarchs undergoes an amazing migratory journey over multiple generations. Adults overwinter at a few isolated mountains in one area in Mexico where they gather in the millions, completely covering the trees. As spring approaches, the butterflies fly north to Texas and the Gulf Coast states, breed, lay their eggs, and die. The caterpillars that hatch from those eggs eventually develop into new adult butterflies, which fly farther north where they breed, lay their eggs, and then die. The next generation then matures and flies even farther north where the process repeats — and as many as six generations can breed throughout one summer. The butterflies track the spring emergence and growth of milkweed plants, which is the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat. Milkweeds are perennials, so their roots remain alive year-round, but they grow new stems, leaves, and flowers each summer.

Monarchs have evolved an intimate relationship with milkweeds in a way that circumvents a defense mechanism of the plants against herbivores. Milkweeds produce toxic steroids called cardenolides in their sap that, when ingested, bind with cardiac muscle and stop insect hearts from beating, killing them. Monarchs, however, evolved the ability to mostly prevent these cardenolides from binding with their cardiac muscle, so they can consume the milkweed plants without harm. They accumulate the toxins in their tissue, effectively stealing the chemical defense of their food plant for their protection from predators. Milkweeds get nothing out of this relationship — Monarch butterflies do visit the flowers but they are too big to pollinate them — so milkweed pollination has to be accomplished by beetles and bees.

As summer wanes, the last generation of butterflies begins to fly south. Despite being several generations removed from their ancestors that overwintered in Mexico, and having never made the trip before, these butterflies manage to fly back to those few isolated mountains in Mexico for the winter. They won’t breed until the following spring, when they fly North again to Texas and the process starts all over again.

Since 1993, there has been a loss of many hundreds of millions of monarchs. There is no easy explanation for this because there are probably multiple factors involved, including climate change and loss of habitat in overwintering areas because of illegal logging. One additional hypothesized cause for monarch declines is a long-term decline in the abundance of their major food plant, the common milkweed. Flowers are not needed for the nectar — Monarch butterflies can feed on nectar from any number of flowers — but milkweeds are the only plant that the monarch caterpillars can eat and develop on.

There are two main causes for the decline in common milkweed. Like many of our native plants, common milkweed is killed by herbicides like Roundup. The use of Roundup has increased dramatically over the past three decades as new crop cultivars have been developed that are resistant to the herbicide (during the same time frame as the monarch population decline). Native habitat has also been lost as increased acreage is put into agricultural production or being developed commercially for other purposes. Overall, common milkweed has declined by 50-90%, with estimates varying with geographic area, time frame, habitat, and method of study.

In addition to other conservation efforts, like educating users about how to apply herbicides more conservatively and establishing no-mow zones along roadways, conservation agencies like the National Wildlife Foundation are growing, collecting, and distributing milkweed seeds in an attempt to restore common milkweed populations. While this is commendable, one potential problem with this approach is that common milkweed populations may have adapted to local environmental conditions. This phenomenon is termed “local adaptation.” Because of local adaptation, it may be important to use locally sourced seeds in common milkweed restoration efforts. Plants grown from non-local sources of seeds may not be adapted for the environment they’ve been introduced to, thereby hampering milkweed restoration efforts and monarch butterfly conservation.

The phenomenon of local adaptation is seemingly fairly common in plants, but the degree to which local adaptation occurs varies widely. The main goals of this research are to determine if local adaptation occurs in common milkweed, how strong local adaptation is if it occurs, and what particular environmental variables are causing it. This will better inform efforts to restore milkweed populations.

Presentations by Drs. John and Jennifer Styrsky
Ecological Society of America, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. August 2022. Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, exhibits latitudinal clines in germination and early growth traits. (co-authors with E.K. Mohl, M. Reid, L. Sherman, M. Wood, A.C. McCall, S.E. Scanga, M.C. Fisher-Reid, H. Marella, D.E. Garneau, K.S. Whitney, K. Cipollini, P.E. Saunders, and K.N. Hopfensperger)

Society for Ecological Restoration: Midwest — Great Lakes Chapter, Willoughby, OH. April 2022. Defenses in herbivory show a latitudinal gradient in Asclepias Syriaca. (co-authors with B. Wagner, M. Newman, M. Bridges, A.C. McCall, E.K. Mohl, and S. Brauner)

Society for Ecological Restoration: Midwest — Great Lakes Chapter, Willoughby, OH. April 2022. Population latitude affects growth and senescence traits in Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. (co-authors with M. Newman, B. Wagner, M. Bridges, A.C. McCall, E.K. Mohl, and S. Brauner)

Society for Ecological Restoration: Midwest — Great Lakes Chapter, Willoughby, OH. April 2022. Collaborative research tentatively supports local seed sourcing for the restoration of common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, populations. (co-authors with S. Ronneberg, S. Dlamini, M. Reid, S. Rice, L. Sherman, C. Wilkens, M. Wood, A.C. McCall, S.E. Scanga, M.C. Fisher-Reid, H. Marella, D.E. Garneau, K.S. Whitney, K. Cipollini, S. Rasmussen, K.N. Hopfensperger, and E.K. Mohl)

Northeast Natural History Conference, Albany, ME. April 2022. Invited session paper (‘Collaborative Networked Research with Undergraduates through the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN)’): MAREN: Leveraging EREN to Improve Milkweed Restoration. (co-authors with M.C. Fisher-Reid, H. Marella, J. Whalen, K. Cook, A. Vasapollo, W. Riendau, D. Andrade-Fonseca, K. Syliva, E. Mohl, A.C. McCall, M. Wood, L. Sherman, M. Reid, P.A. Saunders, S.E. Scanga, C. Danielson, D.E. Garneau, K.S. Whitney, K. Cipollini, S. Rasmussen, and K.N. Hopfensperger)

Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), National Diversity in STEM Conference, San Juan, Puerto Rico. October 2022. Is there evidence of local adaptation in common milkweed? (co-authors with A. Muñiz, A. Collins, Z. Ding, J. Felker, N. Olidis, A.C. McCall, E.K. Mohl, and S. Brauner)

Insect Abundance

This research project investigates insect abundance on national and local scales. As part of a national collaboration of higher education institutions, the Biology Department at the University of Lynchburg and the Claytor Nature Center work together to sample insect abundance annually between April and July. A set of four malaise traps are erected a minimum of four times during the sampling season. The collected insects are sorted into order, weighed, and the data compiled into a larger dataset.

Peter O. Dunn, Insiyaa Ahmed, Elise Armstrong, Natasha Barlow, Malcolm A. Barnard, Marc Bélisle, Thomas J. Benson, et al. “Extensive Regional Variation in the Phenology of Insects and Their Response to Temperature across North America.” Ecology, 2023.

American Chestnut Restoration

The American Chestnut Foundation states its goal of restoration is:

To develop the capacity to enable forest plantings of genetically diverse and disease-tolerant germplasm capable of sustained population growth and expansion across the broad and ever-changing landscape of our Eastern hardwood forests.

In 2013, the Claytor Nature Center began site preparations to work with The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) to establish a mother tree orchard. Mother tree orchards provide easy access to the seeds they produce and may also be a source or recipient of pollen for experimental breeding. Claytor’s original orchard was seeded from 93 chestnuts gathered from blight-resistant chestnut trees on public lands in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. During the first few years, some of the seedlings that died were replaced. The trees that remain were established between 2014 and 2017. Over the years, pollination has occurred among the trees in the orchard. However, the mother tree orchard also stands ready to receive backcrossed pollen from resistant trees of other origins, should it be needed to support experimental breeding. For now, our chestnut trees annually produce chestnuts that are collected and given to TACF to establish seedlings in other locations.

Visitors can enter the orchard near the main entrance at Woods Road, where they can get a closer look at a species that we hope to reintroduce to eastern forests someday. Please register your visit before entering the orchard by driving down to the education building parking lot and paying the entry fee at the kiosk, or place your membership card on your windshield.

You can learn more about the history and restoration efforts for the American chestnut tree with this TedX talk by William Powell, and read more about the efforts of The American Chestnut Foundation.

The Virtual Field 360-Degree Seasonal Videos

The Virtual Field 360-Degree Seasonal Videos is a multi-institutional, international, National Science Foundation (NSF) grant-funded project through the Organization for Biological Field Stations (OBFS).

Participants set a 360-degree video camera at a predetermined location, set the camera to run, exit the viewshed, and film five minutes of uninterrupted landscape video. Then they move the camera to the next site. These videos capture seasonal changes.