Monarch butterflies: Out of sight, but not out of mind!

By Anurag Agrawal

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The annual migratory calendar for monarch butterflies in eastern North America.

As winter approaches, monarch butterflies are not in sight for most Americans. Beginning in the fall, hundreds of millions of butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains oriented south and began their migration. And indeed the story of how they navigate is truly remarkable: the little insect uses a sun compass that is adjustable depending on the time of day to find its way. Details of the migration and much more are in Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution. And 2017 was a spectacular fall season for monarch butterflies. As far as most monarch biologists can remember, this was perhaps the biggest summer season on record, with monarchs in epic numbers congregating and flying south.

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Southward migrating monarchs in Ontario during autumn. Although monarchs are usually dispersed in the summer, as the fall migration takes hold, butterflies congregate in larger clusters.

As the holiday season approaches, it is useful to keep in to keep in mind where monarchs are and what they are doing.  Cool and concentrated, they huddle en masse for nearly five months.  Will the numbers of butterflies overwintering in Mexico this year show a rebound from their precipitous decline?  If the migration was successful, yes, we all expect (hope!) the numbers to be up.  But only time will tell, as the official numbers are typically announced each February by World Wildlife Fund Mexico.  The monitoring of these unimaginable aggregations of butterflies has been a critical piece in the conservation puzzle for monarchs.

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The state license plate in Michoacán State, Mexico.

In November around the Day of the Dead and leading to American Thanksgiving, monarchs arrive to their overwintering grounds in the highlands Michoacán, Mexico. And legend has it that the butterflies are the returning souls of loved ones. They form clusters that are so dense, they weigh down the Oyamel Fir trees they inhabit above 10,000 feet of elevation in these exquisite sites. The sites are terribly small, with all of them fitting into area smaller than New York City.

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A congregation of monarchs within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most wings are closed, but look for the orange spots of open butterfly wings.

But before 1975, there was no conservation conversation about monarchs, because scientists simply did not know where monarchs went in the winter (of course native Mexicans of the region have known for centuries).  More importantly, we didn’t know how restricted and sensitive their overwintering sites are. The story of how the monarchs were found is too lengthy to recount here, but it is an astonishing story. In short, Professor Urquhart from the University of Toronto was hot on the trail, and knew that they flew south into Mexico during the fall.  Nora and Fred Urquhart marshaled a citizen science campaign that included a massive effort to engage folks far and wide in the search for the overwintering grounds.  In fact, in 1973, they wrote an article in an English language newspaper in Mexico City requesting help in finding the monarch overwintering sites.

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I obtained this reproduction of the original article outlining monarch butterfly biology and requesting help finding the overwintering grounds from the Library of Congress. It came on microfiche and was a treasure to hold and read.

Still, it was another two years before the overwintering colonies were found and reported to the world. After thirty years of tagging butterflies, enlisting thousands of citizen scientists, and much speculation, shortly after new year’s day in January 1975, the great discovery was made. The Urquharts wrote to their thousands of volunteers: “We now wish to announce to our associates, that, after these many years of intensive study, after having tagged thousands of migrants, we have, finally located the exact area where they overwinter, with the very able assistance of Ken Brugger and Cathy Brugger of Mexico City”. And the rest is history.

Anurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

Agrawal