The Incredible Journey of the Monarch Butterflies
In the morning as I sit on the lanai sipping my coffee, I watch the beautiful orange and black Monarch butterflies flutter past flitting from one plant and flower to another. They are delicate and their bodies look like a stain glass window painted on each wing. I marvel that something that delicate and lovely can take on the long and difficult journey that they do, especially the ones east of the Rocky Mountains.
The Monarch butterfly, also known as, Danaus plexippus, its scientific and Latin name, is a milkweed butterfly in the family Nymphalidae. Monarchs are the best known of the N. American butterflies as there are millions and millions of them on the N. American continent. They are also found in New Zealand and Australia and in Europe, specifically in the Canary Islands, the Azores and Madeira.
The female and male Monarch butterflies are not easy to tell apart. The female Monarchs have darker black veins on their wings. The males have a spot, androconum, in the center of each hind wing and this is where the pheromones are released during mating time. These pheromones release an ordor that attracts the female to the male Monarchs so that they can mate. The males are also a little larger in size than the females.
The American Monarch butterflies are closely related to the Jamaican Monarch and the S.American Monarch that lives south of the Amazon River. Monarchs are, therefore, well known butterflies throughout the world. They can also be found in Bermuda, Hawaii, and India.
When I taught Spanish, every year I would teach a lesson on the Monarch butterflies because they are best known for the long and difficult journey they make each autumn from Canada and northern U.S. to Mexico and then back again in the spring. This is one lesson my students always were amazed and curious about, because these butterflies are so delicate and small to take on such a long journey. All Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains fly to the same destination and that is the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve located in the state of Michocan in Mexico. The butterflies stay here in a protected sanctuary for the winter and then take the difficult journey back north in the spring. This particular lesson always inspired a few of my students to want to visited the reserve in Mexico some day. And, I would like to join them, as I think a trip to this reserve would be so interesting.
The Journey of the Monarch butterflies
As mentioned before, all the Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains journey to the sanctuary at the Marisposa cMonarca Biosphere Reserve in the state of Michocan in Mexico. All of the Monarch butterflies west of the Rocky Mountains fly to central and coastal California for the winter. They fly to the towns of Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz for sanctuary during the winter.
Once the Monarchs winter in their respective places for the winter, the same individual Monarch butterflies do not journey back north. No single individual Monarch makes the entire round trip. Only the second, third, and fourth generations return to their northern locations in the U.S. and Canada in the spring. What is remarkable is that the life span of the Monarch butterflies is only two months, so the journey they make exceeds the normal lifespan of the Monarchs. How the Monarchs manage to do this journey is that the last generatio of the summer enters into a non-reproductive phase called diapauseand live up to seven months or more so they can make the journey. During diapause, the Monarchs fly to one of the many wintering sights. Then, the generation that winters does not reproduce until it leaves sometime in February or March for up north.
How do the Monarchs manage to return to the same place over different generations? That is still under research by scientists today. Scientists believe the Monarchs flight patterns to be inherited based on a combination of the position of the sun in the sky. Researchers and scientists believe there is a sun compass that depends upon the circadean clock which is based in their antennae. New research has shown that Monarchs can use easrth's magnetic field for orientation. The antennae contain cryptochrome which is a photoreceptor protein that is sensitive to the violet-blue part of the spectrum. This cryptochrome functions as a chemical compass which tells the Monarchs they are aligned with earth's magnetic field as it flies back and forth.
Because of this special photoreceptor Monarchs have, they are one of the few insects that are able to make this long journey and even tran-Atlantic crossings.
This difficult and long round-trip journey that the Monarch butterflies make each year can only be described as incredible. It is fascinating to me how nature adapts to this wonderful planet called Earth. I only hope we can preserve our Earth so that we an enjoy the "incredible journey of the Monarch butterflies" for generations and generations to come.
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