Species Spotlight: Monarch Butterfly

By Michelle Ferrell, MNA Intern

Beautiful and bold, butterflies have captured the interests and imaginations of people for millennia. Few have been as iconic as the Monarch butterfly. With a historic range spanning over 3,000 miles across North and Central America, as well as the northern part of South America, it is also the most well-traveled. Every spring, millions of these winged wonders make the journey north as far as Canada from their wintering spots in Mexico.

It’s one of nature’s most fascinating phenomena, as no living Monarch has ever made the journey before, and yet they reliably fly in the same direction, year after year. By the time they reach the northernmost part of their range, five generations of Monarchs will have lived, bred and died, leaving their offspring to carry the torch. This final generation, born in late summer, will be the lucky ones to migrate south to overwinter for eight months before beginning the journey north again the following spring.

Monarch on a goldenrod – Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

As many of us have seen, the Monarch is a mid-sized butterfly with a distinctive orange and black wing pattern accented with white spots. Predators should take care not to confuse it with the strikingly similar Viceroy, whose hind wings have a black line that the Monarch lacks. This small difference is important to note, because the Monarch is toxic. Its caterpillars have an equally distinctive appearance, their stout bodies banded with yellow, black and white. Because Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants, the caterpillars grow up eating nothing else – rendering them their toxicity.

Largely the result of habitat loss, there has been a nearly 90% decline in the population of the Eastern monarch, which is the largest subset of the species and that which carries its migration into Michigan. The loss of habitat includes breeding grounds across the U.S. and overwintering habitat in Mexico, as well as a variety of habitats in which to rest and refuel on their exhaustive journey. This is a grave concern, as pollinators supply 1/3 of the world’s food and 3/4 of its flowers, and apart from being lovely, Monarchs are one of the most common and widespread butterfly species.

Few insects are as beloved as the Monarch. Several initiatives are underway to preserve the necessary habitats to sustain their populations, including the Monarch Joint Venture and Journey North. The Michigan Nature Association is hosting its annual Monarch March Family Fun Run & 5k at Mayor’s Riverfront Park in Kalamazoo on Sunday, October 1 to promote efforts to preserve Monarch habitat throughout Michigan.

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Contact Jess Foxen at jfoxen@michigannature.org to learn more, or register online. The fee for adults is $25, children $10, and includes a t-shirt and participatory medal. If you’re more into pizza than running, you can also show your support for the majestic Monarch by showing this flyer with your order at Blaze Pizza at 5015 W Main Street in Kalamazoo on September 30th from 3-7pm. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to MNA to support their mission of preserving Michigan’s natural heritage.

Read more about MNA’s involvement with Monarch conservation and keep current on other important news with the Fall 2017 publication of Michigan Nature magazine!