Following the Twists and Turns of Migrating Monarchs

June 8, 2012

Monarch Butterflies in MexicoEvery fall, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies living in eastern North America fly up to 1,500 miles to the volcanic forests of Mexico to spend the winter, while monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains fly to the California coast. The phenomenon is both spectacular and mysterious: How do the insects learn these particular routes and why do they stick to them?

A prevailing theory contends that eastern and western monarchs are genetically distinct, and that genetic mechanisms trigger their divergent migratory paths.

An analysis led by Emory biologists, however, finds that the two groups of monarchs are genetically mixed. Their research, published in the journal Molecular Ecology, suggests that environmental factors may be the key to the butterflies’ choice of winter homes, and to where they wind up in the spring.

“Our data gives the strongest signal yet that the eastern and western monarchs belong to a single genetic population,” says Emory biologist Jaap de Roode, who led the research. “This distinction is important to help us better understand the behavior of the organism, and to conserve the monarch flyways.”

Biologists have long been fascinated by the innate and learned behaviors underlying animal migrations. When monarchs are breeding, for instance, they can live up to four weeks, but when they are migrating, they can live as long as six months.

“As the day length gets shorter, their sexual organs do not fully mature and they don’t put energy into reproduction. That enables them to fly long distances to warmer zones, and survive the winter,” de Roode says. “It’s one of the basic lessons in biology: Reproduction is very costly, and if you don’t use it, you can live much longer.”

Tagging and tracking data gathered by volunteers indicates that the butterflies stay on separate sides of the Rocky Mountains—a formidable high-altitude barrier.

De Roode, however, theorizes that when spring signals the eastern monarchs to leave the overwintering grounds in Mexico, they may simply keep radiating out, reproducing and expanding as long as they find milkweed plants, the food for their caterpillars.

If he’s correct, some of the monarchs leaving Mexico may wind up in western North America, while others may filter into the eastern United States. This influx to the west could be crucial to the survival of monarchs on that side of the continental divide.

The monarch butterfly migration has been called an endangered phenomenon, due to the loss of habitat along the routes. The Mexican overwintering sites, located in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt region northwest of Mexico City, particularly suffer from deforestation. Drug trafficking in the region has decimated eco-tourism and hampered efforts to protect the trees.

“We hope our research can aid in the conservation of the monarch flyways,” de Roode said.

To read the entire story and see monarch photos and videos, click here.

—Carol Clarke

Latest News

What's New Archive