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In Search of the Monarch

Sue Halpern must have a very tolerant and self-confident husband. In the process of researching her book - Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught on the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly published by Knopf Canada (Pantheon Books in the U.S.) in 2001. ISBN: 0-676-97394-9 - she travelled from her Adirondack, N.Y. home to Toronto, Kansas, Georgia, Texas, Hawaii and numerous other places. Presumably, her husband stayed home watching their daughter. Her book starts with her joining a man old enough to be her father (I guess), a virtual stranger, and wandering around the Mexican "badlands" in his banged-up pickup in search of the overwintering homes of the monarchs. Although her husband is only mentioned in the acknowledgements, the perception is that, despite her wandersings, all is well at home. If only more husbands (or wives) were so self-assured as to allow their mates to persue their passions. And Sue has a passion, which is one of the themes of her book.

Part personal diary, part Monarch text book, part a who's who in monarch research, Sue's book manages to grab you with her personal account of that journey in Mexico. But just when you think this is going to be a personal journal of one woman's love affair with butterflies, she switches gears, and you are taken on an entirely differnt course. It's still about monarchs, of course, but the book becomes less personal and more anecdotal.

Roughly, the book covers the "migrations" of the monarch butterfly through, I believe, the fall of 1996 to the fall of 1998. She provides much background information about the current state of monarch investigations, including the work (and later hindrance) of Canadians Professor Fred Urquhart and his wife, who had first disclosed in 1976 that the monarchs wintered over in Mexico. Other noted authorities mentioned in the book include Steven Wendt, head of the Migratory Bird Department of the Canadian Wildlife Service, Lincoln Brower, possibly the preeminent monarch biologist in the world, Karen Oberhauser, Chip Taylor, Robert Michael Pyle and Bill Calvert (her companion in the beat-up pickup).

So, what have all these esteemed resaearchers learned about the monarch? In the fall, the monarch begins a journey of up to nearly two thousand miles to its wintering over home in Michoacan State, Mexico. It arrives, usually, in relatively good condition where it is joined by millions of its kind. They spend the winter huddled together on the branches of oyamel fir trees. As spring approaches, these same butterflies begin the long journey north, seeking out only a few of the 106 species of milkweed to lay their eggs. From Mexico, they may journey to Texas, Florida or other Southern states where they will mate, lay their eggs and die. Their offspring will take up the journey, progressing still farther north where they, too, will mate, lay eggs and die. The third generation moves north again, repeating the process. By the time the fourth generation has reached the northern extent of the monarch's territoryy, it is mid-summer. Come fall, the whole process begins again. So, essentially, the monarchs fly south to a wintering spot none of them have ever seen. And in the Spring, their journey north is completed by their offspring's offspring's offspring who has never isited this locale either. One of the great mysteries of the monarch is how it knows where to head for each fall and spring.

Another great mystery is how it manages to get there at all! What does it use for navigation? How can it survive such a long and gruelling journey? How this butterfly navigates is still largely unknown, but it is possible that butterflies use the same thermal uplifts that glider pilots utilize to conserve their energy as they travel. The problem is, these thermals will often move in the wrong direction. This may help to explian why butterflies can be observed seemingly travelling in the wrong direction. Butterflies are able to utilize the sun's energy and convert it to a form that can be drawn upon to sustain flight. Thus, when butterflies are "sunning" themselves, they are actually absorbing the sun's energy for later use. Monarchs can only travel under good consitions. If the temperature is too low, they can not even move, let alone fly. On cloudy, rainy or blustery days, they may take refuge rather than risk flight.

The Mexican wintering grounds is used by virtually all monarchs east of the Rocky mountains. Those west of the Rockies have wintering areas in California. But monarchs are found in many other parts of the world, including Hawaii, where they arrived with the unwitting aid of man. However, the Hawaiian monarchs include a small number of white monarchs. Not albinos, which would be entirely white, but white where the orange should be. No one knows how this strain came into existence or why they are only found in Hawaii.

Record numbers of monarch butterflies were observed in 1997. In any given year, the numbers of monarchs can vary by a factor of a hundred. One year, one might see tens of thousands while the next year there are only hundreds. Why this should be is yet another mystery unsolved. Monarchs have been observed and tagged for half a century. A small adhesive dot can be applied to their wings recording who tagged the butterfly and where. If the same butterfly is captured again, the tag can be used to contact the original tagger. Much valuable information has been obtained in this way. One can also determine the insect's sex by examining its wings. The males have pheromone sacs that appear as small dark dots, one on each wing.

1998 proved to be a bad year for monarch sightings. Everywhere one travelled, monarchs were few and far between. Indeed, much of the last section of Sue's book, deals with the almost fruitless search by her and her many colleagues for the elusive butterflies of 1998. Everywhere that the butterflies usually roosted was almost barren. Only in the last page did they finally find some butterflies in large numbers.

Was it a normal aberration? Or are the monarchs in danger of extinction? Sue didn't really answer those questions. What is known is that the Mexican wintering over areas are in danger. This land is poor allowing the residents a meager subsistence at best. To help supplement their income, many farmers have turned to logging the oyamel fir trees which has threatened the monarchs. With good intentions, the Mexican government has placed the wintering over sites under protection. Unfortunately, this has had the effect of taking away more land from the impoverished inhabitants while providing no other sources for food or money. Illegal logging has been the unfortunate result. Once again, the stark reality of cause and effect comes face to face with conservationists. It is not enough to merely put an area under protection. You must see to it that the people who made use of that area are compensated in some meaningful way. We often think that it is the "developers" that endanger wildlife and, to be sure, in large measure it is. But sometimes it is just a common farmer trying to eke out a living anyway he can. It's not that he doesn't like the monarchs. It's not that he wishes them ill. It's just that he wants to be able to put food on his table. Not an unreasonable desire.

Copyright © 2004 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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