Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Monarch butterflies gather at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Angangueo, Mexico.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Monarch butterfly


About the monarch butterfly

The monarch butterfly is one of the most recognizable and well studied butterflies on the planet. Its orange wings are laced with black lines and bordered with white dots. Famous for their seasonal migration, millions of monarchs migrate from the United States and Canada south to California and Mexico for the winter.

Range

Monarch butterflies are native to North and South America, but they’ve spread to other warm places where milkweed grows. No longer found in South America, monarchs in North America are divided into two main groups: The western monarchs, which breed west of the Rocky Mountains and overwinter in southern California; and the eastern monarchs, which breed in the Great Plains and Canada, and overwinter in Central Mexico. There are also populations in Hawaii; Portugal and Spain; and Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere in Oceania.

Life cycle

The female monarch butterfly lays each of her eggs individually on the leaf of a milkweed plant, attaching it with a bit of glue she secretes. A female usually lays between 300 and 500 eggs over a two- to five-week period.

After a few days, the eggs hatch into larvae, otherwise known as caterpillars in the moth and butterfly world. The caterpillars’ main job is to grow, so they spend most of their time eating. They only eat milkweed, which is why the female laid her eggs on milkweed leaves in the first place.

The caterpillars eat their fill for about two weeks, and then they spin protective cases around themselves to enter the pupa stage, which is also called "chrysalis." About a week or two later, they finish their metamorphosis and emerge as fully formed, black-and-orange, adult monarch butterflies.

Monarch butterflies do different things depending on when they complete their metamorphosis. If they emerge in the spring or early summer, they’ll start reproducing within days. But if they’re born in the later summer or fall, they know winter is coming—time to head south for warmer weather.

Defense

Monarchs’ colorful pattern makes them easy to identify—and that's the idea. The distinctive colors warn predators that they’re foul-tasting and poisonous. The poison comes from their diet. Milkweed itself is toxic, but monarchs have evolved not only to tolerate it, but to use it to their advantage by storing the toxins in their bodies and making themselves poisonous to predators, such as birds.

Migration

In the east, only monarchs that emerge in late summer or early fall make the annual migration south for the winter. As the days get shorter and the weather cooler, they know it’s time to abandon their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada and head south to the mountains of central Mexico, where it’s warmer. Some migrate up to 3,000 miles.

There, they huddle together on oyamel fir trees to wait out the winter. Once the days start growing longer again, they begin to move back north, stopping somewhere along the route to lay eggs. Then the new generation continues farther north and stops to lay eggs. The process may repeat over four or five generations before the monarchs have reached Canada again.

Western monarchs head to the California coast for the winter, stopping at one of several hundred known spots along the coast to wait out the cold. When spring comes, they disperse across California and other western states.

How do monarchs make such a long journey? They use the sun to stay on course, but they also have a magnetic compass to help them navigate on cloudy days. A special gene for highly efficient muscles gives them an advantage for long-distance flight.

Threats to survival

Conservation groups have petitioned the U.S. government to add the monarch butterfly to the Endangered Species Act list. While a decision has not yet been made, it’s clear the species is in decline, facing a number of threats.

Western monarchs have declined by more than 99 percent since the 1980s. Eastern monarchs have declined by an estimated 80 percent.

The disappearance of milkweed is a major reason for their population decline. Milkweed, which is the only place monarchs will lay their eggs and the only food caterpillars will eat, used to grow in and around agricultural crops. The systematic removal of milkweed from fields in recent years, as well as increased use of herbicides and mowing alongside roads and ditches, has significantly reduced the amount of milkweed available.

Climate change is also a concern for a number of reasons. Monarchs are very sensitive to temperature and weather changes, so climate change may affect biological processes, such as knowing when to reproduce and to migrate. It’s also creating more extreme weather events, which negatively affects their overwintering habitats, the availability of milkweed in their breeding habitats, and their survival directly—too hot or too cold, and monarchs will die.

Conservation

As an iconic and loved species, monarchs have received a lot of attention from conservationists. Projects exist across North America.

Public awareness campaigns encourage people to plant milkweed in their yards and cities—just look up the type that’s right for your region. There are also a number of citizen scientist opportunities, where regular people can help scientists collect data, which is critical for developing conservation policies to protect monarchs.

Monarch sanctuaries protect the butterflies’ winter habitats and attract tourists, who help provide funding to support their efforts. Some, however, are at risk from human development and conflict.

There are also many larger-scale efforts to protect habitat, better manage land for pollinators, replenish milkweed, raise awareness, and gather new scientific evidence to better understand monarchs.


WATCH: Swarms of Monarch Butterflies Go Here Every Winter

These butterflies create an awe-inspiring scene in Mexico. The majestic monarch makes the epic journey—up to 3,000 miles—from as far as Canada to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

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