Monarch Miracle Migration

The emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico last week held more than aquatic life, seaweed, shells and the ocean’s usual flotsam and jetsam.

There, at the water’s edge as the surf advanced and retreated were numerous familiar bits of orange, black and white.

Some were torn by the relentless waves, but others were intact and a sad reminder that journeys aren’t always completed even though the traveler has come so far against so many odds.

Floating, often appearing to be about to victoriously ascend from the currents, were the remains of dozens of monarch butterflies.

Along that stretch of beach about 30 miles east of Destin, Fla., were a few perfectly preserved monarchs, lying in the packed sand with sugar-like crystals covering their wings.  The dusting of sand on the wings that look so much like stained glass, and are as delicate as a baby’s eyelids.

That monarch may have been one of the scores that can be seen between Southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.   They could be seen gathering fuel to give them strength for the more rigorous parts of their flight whose stopping point is 12 mountains in south central Mexico.

They fluttered from wildflower to wildflower, and occasionally ventured onto the highway where they either narrowly missed vehicles or ran out of luck.

Legions of them had come from America’s northeast — and some from Canada — fluttering at an average speed of 12 miles an hour. The monarchs have been known to fly as many as nearly 3,000 miles in their late summer and fall migration to those mountains in Mexico.

Sadly, these butterflies had endured so much, managing to dodge cars and hungry birds and survive storms and other hazards only to die as they embarked on the last big leg of their journey.

But the good news is that tens of millions do succeed in reaching that over-wintering spot, clustering like bunches of autumn leaves on trees.

The mind-boggling thing is they start their odyssey somehow knowing where they’re going, though they’ve never been there before.

As Audubon Park Naturalist Julie McDonald says, “Imagine going on a trip with no luggage and no food, water, map or compass, abandoned by your family, enroute to a place you’ve never been…”

Are they guided by the earth’s magnetic field? Or by the positions of the sun? Or by an internal compass?

There are so many questions about the tiny miracles, and one day we likely will know most of the answers.

From the 1950s on, thousands of volunteers like the ones who accompany Julie to the Sloughs Wildlife Management Area near Geneva every September have been assisting in the tagging of the creatures.

Netting the six-legged butterflies with the wingspans of three to four inches, the scores of Henderson area volunteers in the two-day event take them to “tagging stations” in the sloughs where thin tags are placed on the hindwing.

The tags, provided by the 18-year-old Monarch Watch program of the University of Kansas, include a unique identification number, a reporting e-mail address and phone number so the butterflies can be reported as recovered.

On this end, the tag’s number is recorded along with the name of the person who caught the butterfly.

Yes, there have been a number of recovered butterflies tagged by folks in Henderson County. A couple of years ago two of the locally tagged monarchs were discovered in El Rosario, Mexico, over a two-day period. Both, amazingly, had been registered to local student Bree Neeley.

Our “lay scientists” are helping researchers track the migration pattern of the winged insect.

It wasn’t until 1975 that the monarch’s wintering spot became generally known. Until then, some had thought the North American monarchs hibernated under logs or died as winter began and left eggs.

Now we know that the monarchs on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains remain in their Mexican refuge until February or March, when they head northward. They lay their eggs and then complete their life cycle.

It is a subsequent generation that makes the trip back to Mexico in the fall.

As for monarchs on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, they winter in California.  However, the eastern monarchs are in jeopardy.

Some researchers believe the species on this side of the Rocky Mountains won’t last more than another 20 years because of deforestation, pesticides and changing climate conditions.

What can we do to help? Plant milkweed, for one thing, as that’s what the monarch caterpillar loves. We can also use organic pest and weed control.

Did you know monarchs have become astronauts? Last November some went into space via the shuttle and were guests in the International Space Station.

Julie McDonald says that changes the longest distance monarchs have traveled to 40 million miles — at more than 17,000 miles per hour.

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