Watching the Migratory Travel Patterns of the Monarch

Like most butterflies, the monarch butterfly is a beautiful sight to behold. Since the monarch's wings are shades of bright orange, some may mistake them for so many autumn leaves in the wind. Despite their beauty, the monarch is unique and unlike other butterflies. The difference is not in its appearance but in its behavior, as it is a migratory insect. In fact, their journey southward during the winter is similar to that of birds.

The annual migration of the monarch is a stimulating one both visually and intellectually. Although people often enjoy viewing these butterflies, many people do not fully understand why they migrate while other butterflies do not. Scientist believe that the monarch butterfly is unable to tolerate the northern cold temperatures during the winter months. As a result, they migrate to locations where the temperatures are ideal for hibernation; however, not all monarch butterflies migrate to the same place. The species is divided into two populations. One population is west of the Rocky Mountains and the other is east of the Rockies. While both begin their migration during the autumn months, the western monarch butterflies head westward toward southern California and the coast. Once they've arrived at their destination, they hibernate in the same eucalyptus trees yearly. The eastern population is the larger of the two. They come from as far as Canada and journey southward. This lengthy journey will take the butterflies through the state of Texas, where they funnel into Mexico. In Mexico, they fly to Central Mexico, where they gather on the oyamel fir trees in the Transverse Neo-Volcanic Mountain range. Like their western counterpart, the eastern butterflies return to the same trees annually. This is an amazing feat for the monarch, as the returning butterflies are a new generation that has never previously traveled to the migration area or the trees.

The lifespan of the monarch butterfly is important when it comes to their migration. When the butterflies migrate south to overwinter in Mexico and southern California, they survive to make the entire flight and to begin the flight back north. These winter migrating butterflies are the butterflies that are born during the late summer months. Monarchs that are born during this time do not enter a reproductive stage as they would under normal circumstances. This lasts approximately seven months or more, during which the butterfly migrates to its winter destination, goes through its period of dormancy, and begins its return back north during the spring migration. Typically, the spring migration begins around February or March. During its journey home, it will reproduce and its lifespan will come to an end. All other monarch butterflies born prior to late summer live for approximately two months, during which they reproduce. As a result, it can take as many as four generations to return back to the original northern location.

One of the biggest mysteries about both the fall and spring migration is how the butterflies know where to go and how to get there. Original research showed that the butterflies use a type of sun compass that is located within their antennae. This allows the butterfly to use the sun as a guide on its journey. There have been questions about this, however, as butterflies continue flying in the correct path and direction regardless of whether there is sun or if there is minimal sun due to fog or heavy cloud coverage, for example. More recent research has been conducted that indicates that monarch butterflies have a magnetic compass that helps to guide them in addition to the sun compass.

From a more-than-2,000-mile journey south to the multi-generational migration north, the journey of the monarch butterfly is amazing. This migration cycle displays nature at its finest; however, there are concerns about the future of the monarch and questions that their numbers may be dwindling during the migration. There are several harmful factors associated with this, such as pollution and the destruction of their habitat, including the cutting of the trees that they seek out during their hibernation. The best way to ensure the future of these butterflies is through continued study and education.


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