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An incredible journey: the monarch butterfly

Backyard Safari

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Media contact: Jessica Basham

As summer fades into fall, the days grow shorter and the evenings turn cooler, but there is a bright spot fluttering in the air. It is the monarch butterfly in the midst of its amazing annual migration south.

The migration fascinates scientists and other nature-watchers.  How can a seemingly delicate butterfly make a 2,500-mile journey across the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and into central Mexico?  And how does it, and its thousands of companions, know where to go and how to get there?

First, let's look at the monarch's life cycle.  A monarch butterfly begins life as an egg, a tiny dot laid on the underside of a leaf. During its second stage of life, the larval stage or caterpillar, it feeds on its favorite food plant, milkweed, and grows quickly.

Its pupa stage, or chrysalis, is the stage where it transforms (metamorphoses) into an adult, the recognizable orange-and-black butterfly we know as the monarch.  What happens next depends on what time of year the adult emerges.

Adult monarchs that emerge in spring or early summer enjoy a fairly typical butterfly lifespan of 2-5 weeks, during which they feed, mate, lay eggs and die.  However, monarchs that emerge in the late summer have more on their agenda - migration!  These special monarchs may live 7-8 months, making them the longest-lived butterflies.

Once they reach Mexico in November, the monarchs roost by the hundreds of thousands on oyamel fir trees.  There, they hibernate until March before starting a northward migration.  Then, they mate, lay eggs and die.  Their offspring continue the journey north through the spring and summer.  It takes four generations of monarchs to reach the northern United States and southern Canada. It is the offspring of this last group who are destined to repeat the southward migration of their great-great-grandparents. Monarchs are the only insects that have such an incredible migration.

Fall is the best time to see butterflies in North Florida, and mid-October to mid-November is the peak time to see them.  You can see monarchs feeding in clusters on goldenrod, saltbush and other wildflowers, especially along the coast.

For more information about monarch butterflies and their migration, visit www.ifas.ufl.edu and type "monarch butterfly" in the search box.  The www.monarchwatch.org site has wonderful information as well.

Also, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in North Florida celebrates an annual festival dedicated to the monarch butterfly.  This year it is on Saturday, Oct. 23.  This is a wonderful time to Get Outdoors Florida! and take your family, students and friends to a wonderful, educational event. Visit www.stmarksrefuge.org/calendar.cfm for more information.



FWC Facts:
Gopher frogs will travel great distances, up to a mile or more, to breed in temporary ponds year-round, laying eggs in shallow water.

Learn More at AskFWC