Prior to starting my consultancy, ArcherAdvantage, I had the fortune of working for the Environmental Defense Fund, a large, well respected and well known international not for profit organization with a mission to preserve the natural systems on which all life depends. EDF’s practical and lasting solutions to the most serious environmental problems are guided by science and economics. For nearly a year and a half, I was the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange Specialist, a newly created position desperately needed to help coordinate tasks, strategize, and conduct outreach for the innovative, incentive-based conservation project designed for farmers and ranchers along the monarch’s breeding range.
When applying for this position, I did a lot of research on the regal butterfly’s life history, habitat requirements, and population status. Bits and pieces came back to me from my early education days, but mostly it was all new information. Growing up in the high and dry panhandle plains, I never witnessed monarch butterflies during their magnificent migration, funnelling through central Texas on their way to and from Mexico.
There is a plethora of information and resources out there about the monarch; it is the most popular insect of them all. So it didn’t take me too, too long to catch up.
One of the fundraisers the Monarch Team did prior to my arrival involved an interactive map where donors could share their location and their “Monarch Story.” I had so much fun reading the stories! While there were definitely recurring themes that surfaced, I was surprised by how unique many of them were.
Through working in the field with EDF, I have witnessed the orange and black leaf-like insects fly across the continent – from their most important breeding grounds in the Corn Belt, to the western subpopulation in the California’s Central Valley, to their convergence in Central Texas known as the “funnel”; just last week, in Michoacán, Mexico I had the great fortune of seeing the winged insects spend its winters clustered by the thousands in the oyamel fir trees – I have found my Monarch Story.
It is hard for me to pick just three things that the monarch symbolizes, but for now I will share my top three.
The monarch to me seems to be one of the most magical creatures we have the pleasure of sharing earthspace with. Like other species that metamorphosize, particularly moths and other butterflies, how they do it and that they even do it at all for that matter, is somewhat of a magical mystery. Every life stage is fascinating to me, but the caterpillar’s creation of the chrysalis (or cocoon) and the subsequent emergence of a delicate winged creature leaves me asking endless questions.
For example, what happens during those 2 weeks in that verdant jewel? Something magical for certain. Actually, I posed this question to Carl Stenoien, a friend I made during my time at EDF, who studied parasite predation that takes place during this life stage. Turns out, quite a bit is known about the happenings within the chrysalis!
Another question we monarch enthusiasts often ponder is how the “super generation” (the fourth generation) knows how to make it all the way from its birth place which can be as far north as Canada to a only twelve mountaintops in central Mexico in two months, having never been before. It is truly a miracle.
What is even more impressive is that a monarch can be captured at any point along its migration south and transplanted in an entirely different location and still wind up making it to its winter home, as evidenced by a tagging study led by Dr. Chip Taylor.
How do they do this? The scientists have many theories, ranging from circadian rhythms and use of antennae, to sensitivity to earth’s magnetic fields, to polarization of the sun’s rays. We may never really know how the monarch does it, and I am okay with that.
2. Constant Change & Adaptation
For a creature that lives for approximately two weeks (up to 9 months for the super generation), monarchs are constantly changing. Born into the world inside the opaque casing of about the size of a pencil point, the monarch emerges as a tiny white caterpillar. Most people are aware of the great metamorphisis from caterpillar to butterfly but aren’t aware that they undergo five big changes prior. Another name for butterflies in their caterpillar stage is instar. The monarch undergoes five instars, becoming larger than their former selves each time. They leave their baggage behind, shedding and discarding their skin, off to bigger and better things.
The monarch’s world starts off so small, on a single milkweed leaf, gradually taking on new leaves and plants, eventually venturing beyond its birthpatch until it finds the perfect leaf to attach itself and thence begin the greatest change of their brief lives. Upon emerging, it takes a moment to prepare itself for the first flight, pumping its crumpled wings with cardenolide, a toxic steroid found in milkweed sap. When its eyelash legs lift off from the milkweed runway, its world explodes.
Crossing city, state, even international boundaries, the butterfly witnesses vast change across the landscape and through the seasons. Those individuals destined for Mexico undergo another change, but this time it is on the inside. They shut down their reproductive systems, since their primary purpose has shifted from procreation to perpetuation.
As they form clusters and the temperatures cool, they enter a form of hibernation and some of their body functions shut down. They spend most of their time on the branches of oyamel firs, but if the days warm up enough they will flit to the nearest meadow and drink the dew from the crevasses of the ground cover.
In ecology, resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a change in environmental conditions by resisting damage and recovering quickly. Throughout their journey, monarchs face many trials and tribulations.
The World Wildlife Foundation assesses the vulnerability of species of conservation concern to the effects of climate change. The monarch butterfly assessment report can be viewed here.
From the very beginning, the monarch caterpillar is born on a toxic plant – a plant it has evolved to not only tolerate but embraced it as its own form of protection. The potent chemical cardenolide is highly toxic to non-milkweed specialist species. Even cows that have the misfortune of eating milkweed plants will become ill. As an important side note, cows are intelligent enough to avoid milkweed until it becomes their last resort in overgrazed areas. The monarchs incorporate the toxic chemical into their bodies, which is advertised by it its distinctive orange and black colors. As a result, some potential predators find them unpalatable and will avoid eating them!
The monarchs must also be resilient to the assortment of storms they inevitably encounter: wind, ice, thunder, drought, climate change, even flooding and landslides. While each individual monarch is highly susceptible to these natural phenomena, their species persists through its strength in numbers, high reproductive rate, and its remarkable ability to take flight.
The Magic of the Monarch
Perhaps the most magical thing about the monarch is its unique ability to bring people together from different nations and cultures, ages and religions. Thousands of individuals each year do their part in helping the monarch, through participating in citizen science projects, planting milkweed patches and butterfly gardens in schools and backyards, donating to Monarch Joint Venture and the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, and inspiring others by sharing their monarch stories.